A stiff-necked people


It is a moment of the highest drama. In Ki Tisa, the Israelites, forty days after the greatest revelation in history, have made an idol. G-d threatens to destroy them. Moshe, exemplifying the character of Israel as one who “wrestles with G-d and man,” prays for mercy for the people.

Coming down the mountain and facing Israel, he smashes the tablets, symbol of the covenant. He grinds the calf to dust, mixes it with water, and makes the Israelites drink it. He commands the Levites to punish the wrongdoers. Then he re-ascends the mountain in a prolonged attempt to repair the shattered relationship between G-d and the people. G-d accepts his request and tells Moshe to carve two new tablets of stone.

However, Moshe makes a strange appeal: “If I have found favor in Your eyes … may my L-rd go among us, because [ki] it is a stiff-necked people, and forgive our wickedness and our sin, and take us as Your inheritance” (Ex. 34:8–9).

The difficulty in the verse is self-evident. Moshe cites as a reason for G-d remaining with the Israelites the very attribute that G-d had previously given for wishing to abandon them: “I have seen these people … and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave Me alone so that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them” (Ex. 32:9).

How can Moshe invoke the people’s obstinacy as the reason for G-d to maintain His presence among them? What is the meaning of Moshe’s “because” — “may my L-rd go among us, because it is a stiff-necked people”?

There is a striking line of interpretation that can be traced across the centuries. In the twentieth century it was given expression by Rabbi Yitzchak Nissenbaum. The argument he attributed to Moshe was this:

“Almighty G-d, look upon this people with favor, because what is now their greatest vice will one day be their most heroic virtue. They are indeed an obstinate people … but just as now they are stiff-necked in their disobedience, so one day they will be equally stiff-necked in their loyalty.

“Nations will call on them to assimilate, but they will refuse. Mightier religions will urge them to convert, but they will resist. They will suffer humiliation, persecution, even torture and death because of the name they bear and the faith they profess, but they will stay true to the covenant their ancestors made with You. They will go to their deaths saying Ani ma’amin, I believe.

“This is a people awesome in its obstinacy — and though now it is their failing, there will be times far into the future when it will be their noblest strength.” That Rabbi Nissenbaum lived and died in the Warsaw ghetto adds poignancy to his words.

As Ralbag explained in the fourteenth century, a stubborn people may be slow to acquire a faith, but once they have done so they never relinquish it.

We catch a glimpse of this extraordinary obstinacy in an episode narrated by Josephus, one of the first recorded incidents of mass nonviolent civil disobedience. During the reign of the Roman emperor Caligula (37–41 CE), Caligula had proposed placing a statue of himself in the Temple in Jerusalem, and had sent the military leader Petronius to carry out the task.

“There came ten thousand Jews to Petronius at Ptolemais to offer their petitions to him that he would not compel them to violate the law of their forefathers. ‘But if,’ they said, ‘you are wholly resolved to bring the statue and install it, then you must first kill us, and then do what you have resolved on. For while we are alive we cannot permit such things as are forbidden by our law …  We will not by any means make war with Caesar, but we will die before we see our laws transgressed.’ Then they threw themselves down on their faces and stretched out their throats and said that they were ready to be slain.”

Faced with heroic defiance on so large a scale, Petronius wrote to Caligula urging him “that if he were to slay these men, he would be publicly cursed for all future ages.”

Nor was this unique. Rabbinic literature and the chronicles of the Middle Ages are full of stories of martyrdom. Yhe very concept of kiddush Hashem came to be associated in halacha with the willingness “to die rather than transgress.”

Of these many episodes, one stands out. It was recorded by Jewish historian Shlomo ibn Verga and concerns the Spanish expulsion.

“One of the boats was infested with the plague, and the captain of the boat put the passengers ashore at some uninhabited place … There was one Jew among them who struggled on afoot together with his wife and two children. The wife grew faint and died … The husband carried his children along until both he and they fainted from hunger. When he regained consciousness, he found that his two children had died.

“In great grief he rose to his feet and said: ‘O L-rd of all the universe, You are doing a great deal that I might even desert my faith. But know You of a certainty that — even against the will of heaven — a Jew I am and a Jew I shall remain. And neither that which You have brought upon me nor that which You may yet bring upon me will be of any avail.’”

One is awestruck by such obstinate faith.

Not by accident does the main narrative of Esther begin “And Mordechai would not bow down” (Esther 3:1). His refusal to make obeisance to Haman sets the story in motion. Mordechai too is obstinate — for there is one thing that is hard to do if you have a stiff neck: bow.

At times, Jews found it hard to bow to G-d — but they were never willing to bow to anything less. That is why, alone of the many peoples in history, Jews — exiled, everywhere a minority — neither assimilated to the dominant culture nor converted to the majority faith.

“Forgive them because they are a stiff-necked people,” said Moshe, because the time will come when that stubbornness will be not a tragic failing, but a noble and defiant loyalty.