“I have seen this people, and behold! it is a stiff-necked people.” (22:9)
A former President of the United States once asked his Israeli counterpart how things were going. “I have many problems,” said the Israeli. Replied the American President, “You think you have problems? You are the President of 8 million people, while I am President of 180 million.” To which the Israeli President replied, “Mr. President, you are President of 180 million people. I, however, am the President of 8 million Presidents.”
The Torah itself calls the Jewish People a stiff-necked people. Sometimes this obstinacy can be for the good and sometimes for the not so good. Stubbornness can be an extremely dangerous trait, for it can foil any attempt to improve our situation. Stubbornness enters a person’s mind and blinkers him from any other possibility other the one on which he has set his mind. Thus, in the incident with the golden calf with all its severity, the Torah doesn’t focus on the sin itself, rather on the obstinacy that it revealed. A negative action can always be atoned for and repaired, whereas implacable wrong-headedness allows no place for the way of return. However, there is also a positive side to being stubborn:
Rabbi Sinclair relates the following story: In a certain concentration camp, there was one particularly sadistic Nazi officer. One day he ordered a Jew to follow him to the top of a nearby hill. He indicated a cloud of dust rising on the distant Eastern horizon. “Do you know what that is?” “No.” replied the Jew. “That is the Russian Army. In a couple of hours they will be at the gates of the camp. The war is over for you. I want you to eat this piece of ham now, or I will shoot you.” The Jew refused on the spot without batting an eyelash. And the Nazi shot him also without batting an eyelash. Edward Gibbon in his “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” writes that of all the nations that Rome subjugated, the only people that clung successfully to its beliefs was the Jewish People. All Rome’s other vassal states managed to segue the Roman gods into their pantheon without batting an eyelash. The Jews, however, were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice rather than abandon their faith. It is this intransigence, imbued in the spiritual genes of our people by our forefathers, that has preserved Jewish identity to this day.
Moshe comes down from the mountain after the Israelites had made the Golden Calf and VAYAR ET HA’EGEL UMECHOLOT, “…he saw the calf and the dances…”. (Ex. 32,19) Then, the Torah states, his anger flared up and he shattered the Tablets of Stone. Why was he surprised when he saw the calf? Hashem had told him that they made it. Why did he bring the Tablets down or why didn’t he shatter them before? The Seforno answers this question. He says that when Moshe was told that they had made the calf he thought he would come down to them and show them their mistake and they would do Teshuva. When he saw that they were dancing and made merry with such joy, he realized that he will not be able to readily pull them away from the calf. He came to the conclusion that they were not ready for the tablets of the Ten Commandments. We often make mistakes. If, however, we do not realize our errors and continue to justify what we did then it is much harder for us to correct our ways. We must be ready to face up and recognize our wrong doing. Only then will we be able to correct our faults.
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim