Beit Midrash

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To dedicate this lesson

A Stiff-Necked People


Rabbi Berel Wein

The Jewish nation is described in the Torah as being a stiff- necked people. In the context of that particular Torah discussion this description of the people of Israel is not necessarily a complimentary one. It refers to the stubbornness of the generation of the desert of Sinai and their rebellious nature in constantly refusing to abide by God’s will and to accept Moshe’s authority and rule. Neither plagues nor wars, natural disasters such as serpents and poisonous snakes and supernatural punishments, seem to break their stubborn nature. That generation of the desert of Sinai, those who left Egypt, stood at the revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai, survived on manna from heaven and water from the rock, still never lost their attachment to the culture and slavery of Egypt. At every turn in the desert we read that they complained and said: "Let us turn our heads round and travel back to Egypt." Part of the nature of stubbornness is the inability to admit past error and to recalculate decisions, attitudes and policies. In the case of the generation of the desert of Sinai this trait of stubbornness led to tragic consequences. This generation, which possessed such greatness – the rabbis characterized that generation of the desert of Sinai as being a generation of great knowledge and superior potential wisdom – somehow doomed itself to destruction because of its stiff-necked stubbornness and preconceived negative attitudes. Because of this history of Jewish stubbornness, the phrase "a stiff-necked people" has entered the Jewish lexicon as a very negative trait.

Yet, in the long view of Jewish history over the millennia of its troubles and travails, exiles and persecutions, it is clear that it is his very nature of Jewish stubbornness that has preserved us until this day. Only a stiff-necked people could have survived and retained its identity, its faith, its culture and its vision of eventual destiny over so many years and obstacles. We are alive simply because of the fact that we are a very stubborn people. Only a stubborn people would have survived the destruction of its Temple and exile from its land and still somehow return to it and build it anew after so many years of absence and distance. A stiff-necked people refuses to succumb to passing fads and imagined political correctness. A stiff-necked people realizes that a small minority can hold correct views and beliefs while more often than not overwhelming majorities are wrong in their policies and faiths. The great rebbe of Kotzk phrased it correctly and pithily: "Truth can never be outvoted." So the trait of stubbornness and being stiff-necked has enabled the Jewish people to survive long and bitter centuries of exile and to restore itself to its land, independence and influence. It certainly has served us well through our travels in world history.

The Jewish people, especially here in Israel have exhibited tremendous fortitude, determination and resolute stubbornness over the past few weeks of our struggle with Hamas. Innumerable rockets have fallen on the Jewish population in the Land of Israel without breaking our spirit or crippling our justified response. It is not only the Iron Dome antimissile system that has protected us, though one should be awestruck at its efficiency and abilities, but it is the iron will and stubbornness of the Jewish people that has also protected us in this hour of need. Other civilian populations have succumbed to such bombardments. In World War II, Poland and the Netherlands were broken by the Luftwaffe. However, Great Britain survived the Blitz and later the V1 and V2 rocket attacks even though it suffered more than sixty thousand civilian casualties therefrom. But this ability is currently doubtful, at least in the eyes of this observer of the current world. Little such fortitude remains in Western society today. There are very few stubborn people left on the globe generally. But the trait of stubbornness has survived well and healthy within the people of Israel. It is undoubtedly part of our DNA makeup. Applied correctly and in proper measure and fitting circumstances, stubbornness and being stiff-necked can be a great virtue, a most positive character and national trait. The world looks at us as being too stubborn and unreasonable. In a culture where moral equivalency prevails and there is no right or wrong, the world is disturbed by our stubbornness and by our refusing to somehow just let things be, even when our very existence is challenged by the actions of a murderous enemy. If our enemies and our friends as well would but look at our history and our accomplishments they would realize the positive nature of our stubbornness and respect us for it instead of criticizing us. So we will undoubtedly continue to be a stiff-necked people.
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