The worst character trait of all

Is it good or bad to be stiff-necked?

Danny Ginsbourg

Judaism Jewish girl's necklace
Jewish girl's necklace

We read in our parsha:(32:9-10)’Hashem said to Moshe, I have seen this people, and behold! It is a stiff-necked people:עם קשי עורף; and now, desist from Me. Let My anger flare up against them, and I shall annihilate them’.

Rav Shlomo Kluger explains: Hashem’s words were to correct Moshe Rabenu’s (mis)understanding of His preceding words to him:(32:7)’Go descend, for your people..has become corrupt’.

Moshe thought that he was to go down to them, from the mountain, to rebuke them for their sin, so that they should do teshuva.

Hashem ‘corrected’ him: Since the people are ‘stiff-necked’, they are incapable of accepting rebuke, and will therefore not repent; the only course open, is to annihilate them.

The Abarbanel compares the stiff-necked person to an animal, which, despite being created with eyes to see on both sides, and a ‘flexible’ neck, so it can turn around, and see what is behind it, chooses to be ‘stiff-necked’, to only see that which it desires, that which is before it now.

This precludes it from seeing the ‘broader’ picture, especially the consequences of its actions, as it is only concerned with satisfying its present desires; and, he adds, there is no greater סכלות: stupidity, than this.

Rav Moshe Sternbuch sees ‘a wondrous lesson’ in this: Whilst their grievous sin, of the golden calf, did not, in itself, merit their annihilation, being a ‘stiff-necked people’ did!

He expounds: ‘There is no worse character trait than being ‘stiff-necked’, as it precludes a sinner from heeding rebuke, and mending his ways; and he is, therefore, ‘beyond redemption’.

He shares a vital teaching that he heard from the Chazon Ish: When consulted regarding שידוכים: proposed ‘matches’, he advised that they first check that neither family is עקשן בתכונותיו: ‘stiff-necked’ by nature, as this is THE most dangerous fault in a marriage; it is liable to cause even the smallest disagreement to flare out of control, and lead to פירוד ושנאה: division and animosity, as it makes a person ‘intractable’, and precludes compromise- which is the key to a successful marriage.

Surely a sobering, and vital message, to each of us!

And yet, Rav Israel Meir Lau, in his commentary on Avot (34:20), sees a positive, even critical, need for this character trait!

He asks: How did Moshe Rabenu ‘dare’, after Hashem’s unequivocal words, plead with Him:(34:9)’If I have now found favor in Your eyes, my Lord, let my Lord go among us, for it is a stiff-necked people, and You shall forgive our inequity and error, and make us Your heritage’.

True, Hashem, in His mercy, had accepted Moshe’s pleas, and rescinded the decree of annihilation; but, the people remained a ‘stiff-necked’ people!

So, why did Moshe Rabenu argue that , precisely ‘for it is a stiff- necked people’, Hashem should go amongst them?

Explains Rav Lau: Moshe argued: True, this was a very ‘undesirable’ character trait in itself, in the circumstances detailed in our parsha, but, it could also be a ‘positive’ trait, if a people were to be able to be faithful to the Torah!

Who but a stiff-necked people like Israel could steadfastly observe the Torah, in the face of all the persecution and tribulations that  would confront them, and yet remain steadfast to Hashem and His Torah?

He cites, in support, the teaching of our sages:(Beitza 25:) The Torah was given to Israel, BECAUSE they are עזין:steadfast.

Therefore, Hashem, because this people is the most ‘stiff-necked’ of all, it alone merits that You go in its midst!