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God's Amazing Insult #667

03/05/2021 06:45:00 PM

Mar5

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Ki Tissa
"I see this is a stiff-necked people." (God)
 
God's Amazing Insult

Over the centuries, Jewish people have been called many names.

Some have included, “The Chosen People,” “Treasured People,” “People of the Book,” and “Light Unto Other Nations.”

Those are the nice ones.

And, of course, there are many names on the other side of the spectrum – too numerous to mention.

Yet, one of the first negative names the Jewish people have had to contend with comes up this week in our Torah reading — Ki Tissa.

The Torah tells us that in the closing hours of Moses’ 40 days, private time with God — following the giving of the Ten Commandments — the Israelites become impatient. They construct a Golden Calf, ultimately choosing materialism over a loving and transcendent God.

As Moses descends Mount Sinai, he observes the Israelites dancing around the calf, and he becomes incensed. He smashes the Ten Commandments.

God isn’t that happy either, and suggests doing away with the Israelites altogether. 

And here comes the term stiff-necked.

God tells Moses — “I see this is a stiff-necked people. Now let me be that my anger blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them and make of you a great nation.” 

Stiff-necked” is repeated several times in the Torah. In Biblical terms, it means that we, as Jews, are stubborn and unappreciative.

After witnessing the Ten Plagues, the parting of the Sea and the giving of the Ten Commandments, how could the Jews turn their backs on God so easily?

Not only do God and Moses see the Israelites as stiff-necked, perhaps they also perceive them to be obstinate, fickle and disobedient.

Yet, I wonder, where the Jewish people would be without those traits. Some of these characteristics have actually empowered us to survive within an often-uncertain and hostile world.

Over the centuries, Sages have mulled over this original divine insult. For isn’t there a little stiff-neckless in each of us?”

Ultimately, cooler heads prevail. Moses asks God to forgive the Jews. God agrees, and following a punitive plague, the Jewish journey continues.

Yet, in the same way God seems to reconsider the fate of this stiff-necked people, some sages have chosen to see the inherent beauty of this label. 

Think of the story of Purim — as Mordechai refuses to arch his stiff neck. Indeed, the Israelites refused to bend through hundreds of years of slavery.

Think of the nations over thousands of years that tried to destroy us. Through the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans and Ottomans, through the pogroms and the Holocaust, through the foundation of the State of Israel, no one has ever accused the Jewish people of ceding their uprightness.

Yes, we are stiff-necked — and thank you very much!

It is one of the most beautiful characteristics of Judaism that we are taught to question — that we are not a people who merely follows orders — for we have been victimized by blind obedience.

And yes, there is room to even wrestle with God.

Sometimes, finding the truth means straying off path. Sometimes, it even means stepping away from our Judaism, for truth can exist only once it stands the test of challenge.

Mark Twain once referred to the immortality of the Jew as one of the great enigmas and miracles of human civilization.

Indeed, the stubborn nature of the Jewish people adds to its credibility.  Rabbi Levi ben Gershon (1288 – 1344) explained that a stubborn people may be slow to acquire a faith — but once it has done so, it will never relinquish it.

Perhaps that is why Moses argued so hard that God should forgive the Israelites. For we, as Jews, are on a perpetual journey to find the ultimate truth — as individuals and as a nation. And, it is rarely predictable — or straight.

What is most inspiring to me about this week’s parashah, is the fact that God’s mind changed.

At the beginning of the pandemic, as we ventured into new ways to pray, new ways to express our spirituality, new ways to hold weddings and shivas, new ways to observe ritual, many — at first — were suspicious. 

Were we taking too much into our own hands? Were we disobeying?

But, as Zoom growth in many congregations has revealed over the past year, the golden calf of technology — so maligned before the pandemic — has actually facilitated a rebirth of spirituality, worship and community.

The term stiff-necked has dogged the Jewish people since it was first articulated by God thousands of years ago.

But, I believe that both God, our friends, our enemies and our own communities have come to realize that stiff-neckedness is one of the most important — if not vital — components of the Jewish spirit. 

Religion cannot just exist by obligation. Its foundation is based in the pursuit of truth. That spirit of independence, skepticism and even error has built within us spiritual antibodies to make us stronger.

“Forgive them because they are a stiff-necked people,” said Moses. 

And God agreed, because, in the words of the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “The time will come when that stubbornness will be not a tragic failing, but a noble and defiant loyalty.”

And so it came to be.

For, despite that term — uttered by God to condemn the Jewish people — that stubbornness, skepticism and strength have anchored our ability to endure.

So, on many levels, it is important that we continue our tradition of questioning, debating, and sometimes, even straying from Judaism’s straight path.

As the 3,000-year-old tradition of Judaism has taught us — eventually, the truth will bring us all home.

For indeed, our Jewish stiff-neckedness has enabled us to survive — after all.

Shabbat Shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

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