The Israelites are tenacious. That is a double-edged sword. On one hand they spend a great deal of time wandering the desert complaining and rebelling, pushing the limits and challenging authority. On the other hand, there is this sense that if their energy could just be properly focused Israel will experience the greatness promised to them as descendants of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Leah, and Rachel.
As Moses recounts his time on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments, he reminds the people of their great sin. As he descended with a set of stone tablets, he found them worshipping a golden calf. Due to their stubborn refusal to give up their idolatrous ways the Israelites were punished. It was a harsh lesson about what it means to serve God, and what it means to violate God’s commandments. In retelling the story in Deuteronomy Moses instructs the Israelites to use their tenacity for good:
And now, O Israel, what does the Eternal your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Eternal your God, to walk only in God’s paths, to love God, and to serve the Eternal your God with all your heart and soul, keeping the Eternal’s commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today, for your good. Mark, the heavens to their uttermost reaches belong to the Eternal your God, the earth and all that is on it! Yet it was to your ancestors that the Eternal was drawn in God’s love for them, so that God chose you, their lineal descendants, from among all peoples — as is now the case. Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For the Eternal your God is God supreme and Ruler supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the orphan and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing them with food and clothing. — You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:12-19; NJPS, adapted for gender neutrality)
Moses instructs them, and us, to be determined in pursuit of righteousness. To turn our doggedness from a weakness to strength. In cutting away the thickening about our hearts, we can be tenacious for goodness and holiness. We must cut away the evil, the baggage that blocks us from being what we can be, to turn our heads and focus on how to be a blessing.
With reference to “stiffen your necks no more,” Rabbi Yehudah son of Polvaya teaches in the name of Rabbi Meir that indeed to be stiff-necked suggests being worthy of beheading. However, Rabbi Yitzchak son of Radifa responds in the name of Rabbi Ammi: “You interpret [being stiff-necked] as a denigration, but it is not. Rather, it is praise. Either be a Jew or be hanged” (Exodus Rabbah 42:9). That is to say: be tenacious in your Judaism. It is because of our tenacity that Judaism continues to exist.
We, through Moses, are instructed to not be so stiff-necked that we miss the holiness that is all around us. But, at the same time to be stiff-necked enough that we maintain the sacred path even when confronted by tempting detours. To be tenacious, but not stubborn. Focused, but not blind. Faithful, but not fanatical.
This paragraph of Torah speaks to me year after year because it gets to the essence of what it means to be a Jew. It instructs us to commit ourselves to justice and generosity, but also teaches us to never give up on the quest for meaning and truth. It tells us that to fulfill the covenant we must create a world worthy of God’s presence without sacrificing the ability to think or feel.
Abraham and Moses serve as incredible examples. Both stand up to God at times when God threatens destruction. Abraham as God is about to destroy Sodom. Moses over-and-over again as our ancestors go astray in the wilderness. It all implies peeling away the thick outer shells which may cause us to distance ourselves from others. That to be a Jew is inherently to care about the world, even when the world seems uninterested in us. To be tenacious, even stiff-necked, in our mission to bring holiness into the world.
When God threatens the Israelites saying, “Let me alone and I will destroy them” it is Moses who stands up and says “no!” That is audacity. According to the Talmud (B’rachot 32a), Moses turns down the opportunity to be the forefather of a new nation. He says: “Master of the Universe, if a three-legged chair is unable to stand when you are angry, how can a chair with only one leg remain steady?” For Moses, it is either a people founded and reliant upon the reputations and merits of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or of no one. It is Israel or nothing.
The Israelites of the wilderness represent a stubbornness that is selfish, impure, and idolatrous. Moses asks us to consider a stubbornness that is audacious and equally obstinate, though it exists for a higher purpose: for the people of Israel, for God, for everyone but himself. It forces us to consider when are we being stiff-necked like the Israelites? How can we be more like Moses and how can we be less like the Israelites? Do we stand up for our people, do we stand up for our tradition, do we stand up for what is right with a stubborn confidence that would make Moses proud? How can we do more of this and less of squandering our energy on meaningless and selfish endeavors?
May we all find ways to be tenacious in pursuit of blessing.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).