Parshat Ki Tisa 5778: The Two Sides of Stubbornness

Shalom Friends;

This week, our Parshat HaShevua, Parsha Ki Tisa is being sponsored Jonathan and Debbie Sassen in honor of their son Moshe Tuvia’s Bar Mitzvah. To the Sassen family, many thanks for your sponsorship and for your continued kindnesses.

You can celebrate a Simcha — a birth, a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, a Chassuna or other Simcha event in your life, or commemorate a Yahrtzeit of a loved one, or for whatever other reason by sponsoring a Parshat HaShevua.

Please forward to your relatives and friends and encourage them to sponsor a Parshat HaShevua. And please be in contact with me with any questions, or for further details.

Best Regards,

Moshe Burt
skype: mark.burt3

Parshat Ki Tisa 5778: The Two Sides of Stubbornness

by Moshe Burt

We learn that while Moshe was in Shemayim receiving and learning Torah from Hashem, part of B’nei Yisrael grew anxious and fearful since they had misunderstood Moshe’s explanation regarding the Forty Days and feared that he would not return.

The Artscroll Stone Edition Chumash renders translation of Sefer Shemot Perek 32, posuk 1 and provides explanation from Rashi (pages 493-495):

“The people saw that Moshe had delayed in descending the mountain, and the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, ‘Rise up, make for us gods that will go before us, for this man Moshe who brought us up from Egypt — we do not know what became of him!'”

The people thought that the day of Moshe’s ascent counted as the first day of the forty, and therefore Moshe would be back on the sixteenth of Tammuz. That was a mistake. Moshe meant that he would be away a full forty days and nights, which meant that he would be back on the seventeenth.

This tragic error in the people’s calculation led to the catastrophic creation of the Eigel Zahav — the Golden Calf.

Amidst Hashem’s teaching of Torah to Moshe, HaKadosh Borchu, in American football terms, calls an audible.

The Artscroll Stone Edition Chumash renders translation of Sefer Shemot Perek 32, posukim 7-10):

“Hashem spoke to Moshe: ‘Go, descend — for your people that you brought from Egypt has become corrupt. They have strayed quickly from the way that I have commanded them. They have made themselves a molten calf, prostrated themselves to it and sacrificed to it…'” “Hashem said to Moshe, I have seen this people, and behold! it is a stiff-necked people. And now, desist from Me. Let My anger flare up against them and I shall annihilate them; and I shall make you a great nation.”

Moshe prayed on behalf of B’nei Yisrael, but according to the Ibn Ezra (The Artscroll Stone Edition Chumash commentary on Sefer Shemot Perek 32, posuk 11, page 496):

This passage in not chronological order, for Moshe would not have prayed for B’nei Yisrael while it still harbored an avodah zora in its midst. Rather, he prayed after he had returned to the people and destroyed the Eigel, but Torah mentions it here because the reason he prayed later was in response to Hashem’s implication in the previous verse that it was up to him to save the nation.

The Artscroll Stone Edition Chumash renders translation of Sefer Shemot Perek 32, posuk 11:

“Moshe pleaded before Hashem, his God, and said, “Why Hashem, should Your anger flare up against your people, whom You have taken out of the land of Egypt, with great power and a strong hand?”

In a shiur emailed to subscribers two years ago, Rebbetzin Shira Smiles discusses Moshe’s dialogue and pleadings with Hashem following his (Moshe’s) being dispatched from Har Sinai:

We know what happens next. Moshe descends Har Sinai. Hashem urges him to descend quickly, for “your people … has become corrupt.” What follows, besides Moshe smashing the luchot, is a dialogue between Moshe and Hashem that spans several weeks. Hashem wants to destroy Bnei Yisroel and establish a new nation through Moshe. Moshe refuses and prays that Hashem forgive Bnei Yisroel, and finally pleading that Hashem again be actively involved with the people, not abandoning them to His angels.

What is interesting in this dialogue is that the focus is not on the golden calf but rather on the “stubbornness” of Bnei Yisroel. After informing Moshe that Bnei Yisroel made a molten calf, Hashem says, “I have seen this people, and behold! It is a stiff- necked people. And now desist from Me. Let My anger flare up against them.” Later, when Hashem agrees to letting Bnei Yisroel enter the Land, He again says, “I shall not ascend among you, for you are a stiff-necked people.” Finally, Moshe beseeches Hashem, “Let my Lord go among us – for it is a stiff-necked people, and You shall forgive our iniquity and our error, and make us Your heritage.”

It seems that Hashem would have forgiven Bnei Yisroel for the idol worship, but their stubbornness, stiff-neckedness (we would say hard-headedness) was unforgivable. What is it about this trait that is so evil, and, if that is so, how could Moshe then use that trait as the very argument for Hashem to again be in their midst? To understand this dilemma, we must first explore the source of stubbornness and then attempt to find ways to harness it and overcome it.

What does the phrase “stiff-necked” actually mean? Rabbi Schwadron, the Maggid of Jerusalem, explains that you’ve turned your back on someone or something and refuse to look back, to take a second look. This is what B’nei Yisroel did to Chur who tried to prevent them from making the idol. Instead of admitting they may be wrong, they killed him. This obstinacy is what would have sealed our fate had not Moshe intervened on our behalf. But even later in our history, Jeremiah tells us why Hashem has chosen to destroy the Beit Hamikdosh and exile us: It is because you [Bnei Yisroel] said I have not sinned. We hadn’t learned.

Being obstinate is not just a problem for the nation, but can be very impactful in interpersonal relationships, especially between spouses, notes Rabbi Shlomo Hochberg in Step by Step. Admitting, “I was wrong,” and meaning it is much more powerful than saying, “I’m sorry,” which doesn’t pinpoint the problem and therefore doesn’t lead to improvement. If you constantly justify your actions, you simply cannot improve. A particular wrong action is fairly easy to correct, but a character trait like stubbornness is much harder to uproot.

Rashi notes this character trait in an even earlier incident with Bnei Yisroel. They had just witnessed the splitting of the sea and so many other miracles. Yet those experiences did not change them. When immediately after they arrived at Marah and the water was bitter, they approached Moshe with chutzpah, demanding water. This attitude was already a manifestation of kshei oref, stiff-neckedness and an inability to change. Seeing miracles is meaningless unless it becomes a vehicle for change.

What is the source of stubbornness? Rav Yechzel Levenstein explains that obstinacy is a result of arrogance and ego. It is the refusal to accept another’s perspective, the insistence on the “I” – I am always right, I know best, etc. Stubborn people won’t even accept actual evidence placed before them if it will disprove what they believe. Stubborn people will never believe that any criticism is directed at them; it is always directed at someone else.

How does this affect teshuvah? Hashem has given us the gift of teshuvah so that He will forgive us. However, writes Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz in Tiv Hatorah, the obstinate person does not use this gift. Since he cannot accept criticism, he will never change and do teshuvah. His arrogance can often be detected in other areas.

When he goes to a shiur, he leaves his cell phone on and checks his text messages, and in shul he may talk to his neighbor. He’s not only hurting himself, but also affecting others because he feels his needs trump all others.

There’s nothing worse than not being able to admit I’ve done something wrong.

However, if being stubborn is so bad, how could Moshe then use our obstinacy as providing a reason for Hashem to remain in the midst of the nation? The Tosfos Bracha offers an interesting interpretation of Moshe’s argument. He writes that Moshe agrees with Hashem that we are a stiff-necked people. Ki – even though they are stiff-necked (rather than “because”) please forgive our sin.

But is being stubborn all bad? Like everything else, writes Rabbi Freiman in Shaarei Derech, the trait itself is neutral. Whether it is good or bad depends on how it’s used. It is this trait, this refusal to bend in spite of circumstances and “proof” that has allowed Bnei Yisroel to survive and cling to its religion throughout the Diaspora. This obstinacy is the hallmark and strength of the Jew. As the Aish Kodesh, Rabbi Kolonymus Shapira who was a Rabbi in the Warsaw Ghetto and later was killed in the Holocaust writes, it is in times of great challenge that one needs to insist and remain stubborn in one’s faith. And this is Moshe’s argument. Hashem, we will use this very characteristic to survive as Your people, and for this reason, come with us. As Rabbi Hochberg writes, stubbornness is the tenacious perseverance that is a necessary ingredient of bitachon, of our steadfast faith in Hashem.

It is precisely because of our obstinacy, explains Rabbi Bick in Chayei Moshe that Hashem gave us the Torah. Hashem saw this obstinacy as good, that we would not forsake the Torah, and yet, so quickly after receiving the Torah, they fashioned an idol. Then how are Bnei Yisroel different from other nations? I will destroy them. But Moshe intervenes. He calls out, “Mi LaHashem Elay – Whoever is for Hashem come to me,” and the entire tribe of Levi comes to Moshe. On his command, they take their swords and kill the idol worshippers championing Hashem’s honor and proving that they will be stalwart in Hashem’s service.

If obstinacy is such a stubborn quality that it is so difficult to break, how did Moshe succeed in getting B’nei Yisroel’s attention? Shaarei Derech based on Rav Dessler, explains that only by dramatically smashing the luchot was Moshe able get Bnei Yisroel to wake up and do teshuvah. How dramatic does Hashem have to be with us, how many crises and deaths must we absorb before we look inward to see where I personally need to change?

If one really wants to change, one must evaluate each circumstance where stubbornness begins to raise its head, writes Rabbi Hochberg. One should ask oneself if my stubbornness in this situation is a result of arrogance or for the sake of Heaven. One further needs to ask whether your goals are proper and whether they will positively or negatively affect others. After all, it is easy to be self righteous when one is concerned only with oneself. And then, one must ask for Divine assistance. And in asking for Divine assistance for worthwhile purposes and to maintain sanctity and peace it is always appropriate to be stubborn.

We see today, the two sides of stubbornness. There is the negative side, the stiff-neckedness of the secular in such areas as seeking transportation of masses, or operating businesses on Shabbos in some cities, or the possible questionable alliances between certain political entities and the Arab joint list such as in votes on “Muezzin Bill legislation.” What can justify such an alliance between a sector of Jews and non-Jews in affairs relating to the security, welfare, unity and spirituality of B’nei Yisrael? Is this a precedent L’Shem Shemayim, or exclusively for political reasons, i.e. exclusively for their constituency to the detriment of nation?

On the positive side, there is the collective stubborn persistance of Observant Jews in inculcating tefillah, Torah learning, Halachot and spirituality through the generations through today.

To return to a citing from Rebbetzin Smiles’ shiur, it is by reason of our very stubbornness, obstinancy that Hashem gave us, of all the nations, the Torah and, ultimately, Eretz Yisrael.

May we, the B’nei Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole — be totally restituted for all that was stolen from them and that the expelled families of Amona be restored to their rebuilt homes, at government expense; both due to alt-leftist-agendized, supreme court legalized Yassamnik gunpoint. May our dear brother Jonathan Pollard be liberated and truly free — only upon his return home to Israel, and that the MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem, as should the remains of the two chayalim from the Gaza War of three and a half years ago. May we have the courage and strength to stand up and physically prevent the possibility of Chas V’Challila any future eviction of Jews from their homes and prevent Chas V’Challila the handing of Jewish land over to anyone, let alone to enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nai Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem Al’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bimhayrah b’yamainu — speedily, in our time”, — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!

Good Shabbos!

Moshe Burt, an Oleh, is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of The Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.

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