It is a moment of the very highest drama. The Israelites, a mere 40 days after the greatest revelation in history, have made a golden calf. G-d threatens to destroy them. Moses, exemplifying to the fullest degree the character of Israel as one who “wrestles with G-d and man”, confronts both in turn. To G-d, he prays for mercy. 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 further prolonged attempt to re-establish the shattered relationship between G-d and the people.
G-d allows himself to be entreated. In an extraordinary epiphany, He causes His “glory” to pass by Moses saying, “You will see My back, but My face may not be seen.” He instructs Moses to carve two new tablets of stone, and proclaims his attributes of mercy. At this point, however, Moses makes a strange appeal:
And Moses hurried and knelt to the ground and bowed, and he said, “If I have found favour in your eyes, my Lord, may my Lord go among us, because [ki] it is a stiff-necked people, and forgive our wickedness and our sin, and take us as your inheritance.”
The difficulty in the verse is self-evident. Moses 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,” the LORD said to Moses, “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. Then I will make you into a great nation.”
“Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way.”
When the people heard these distressing words, they began to mourn and no-one put on any ornaments. For the LORD had said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites, ‘You are a stiff-necked people. If I were to go with you even for a moment, I might destroy you. Now take off your ornaments and I will decide what to do with you.’ ” So the Israelites stripped off their ornaments at Mount Horeb.
How can Moses invoke the people’s obstinacy as a reason for G-d to maintain his presence among them? What is the meaning of Moses’ “because” – “may my Lord go among us, because it is a stiff-necked people”?
The commentators offer a variety of interpretations. Rashi reads the word ki as “if” – “If they are stiff-necked, then forgive them.” Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni read it as “although” or “despite the fact that” (af al pi). Alternatively, suggests Ibn Ezra, the verse might be read, “[I admit that] it is a stiff-necked people – therefore forgive our wickedness and our sin, and take us as your inheritance.” These are straightforward readings, though they assign to the word ki a meaning it does not normally have.
Ramban takes a different approach:
This is to be understood in its literal sense. G-d is to go in their midst because they are a stiff-necked people, for now that the Holy One, blessed be He, has become reconciled with them, His presence amongst those who are stiff-necked would be better than that of the angel. For He will want to increase their blessings more, since they are His people and His inheritance . . . At a time of goodwill it is better for them that the Divine glory go with them, because they are a stiff necked people, and He would more readily show grace and mercy upon His servants.
For Ramban, it is precisely the waywardness of Israel that requires the close attention of a forgiving G-d – like a rebellious child for whom the kindest cure is the attentive concern of a loving parent. Ramban’s comment anticipates the famous and audacious prayer of the Hassidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev: “Lord of the universe, I want to propose a deal. We have many sins. You have much forgiveness. Let us exchange our sins for Your forgiveness. And if You should say that this is not a fair exchange, then my reply is: If we had no sins, what would You do with Your forgiveness?”
There is, however, another and far more striking line of interpretation that can be traced across the centuries. In the twentieth century it was given expression by Rabbi Yitzhak Nissenbaum. The argument he attributed to Moses was this: Almighty G-d, look upon this people with favour, because what is now their greatest vice will one day be their most heroic virtue.
They are indeed an obstinate people. When they have everything to thank You for, they complain. Mere weeks after hearing Your voice they make a golden calf. 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 maamin, “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.
The fact that Rabbi Nissenbaum lived and died in the Warsaw ghetto gives added poignancy to his words.
Many centuries earlier, the midrash had made essentially the same point:
There are three things which are undaunted: the dog among beasts, the cock among birds, and Israel among the nations. R. Isaac ben Redifa said in the name of R. Ammi: You might think that this is a negative attribute, but in fact it is praiseworthy, for it means: “Either be a Jew or prepare to be hanged.”
Jews were stiff-necked, says R. Ammi, in the sense that they were ready to die for their faith. As Gersonides (Ralbag) explained in the fourteenth century, a stubborn people may be slow to acquire a faith but once it has done so it never relinquishes 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. It took place during the reign of the Roman emperor Caligula (37-41 C.E.). He had proposed placing a statue of himself in the precincts of the temple in Jerusalem, and had sent the military leader Petronius to carry out the task, if necessary by force. This is how Josephus describes the encounter between Petronius and the Jewish population at Ptolemais (Acre):
But there came ten thousand of the 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 with what you have resolved on. For while we are alive we cannot permit such things as are forbidden by our law . . . “
Petronius, however, was angry at them and said: “. . . Caesar has sent me. I am compelled to observe his decrees . . .” Then the Jews replied, “Since, therefore, you are so disposed, O Petronius, that you will not disobey Caesar’s orders, neither will we transgress the commands of our law . . .”
When Petronius saw by their words that their determination was hard to be removed, and that . . . he would not be able to be obedient to Caligula in the dedication of his statue, and that there must be a great deal of bloodshed, he took his friends and servants and hastened to Tiberius, to see how the Jews there felt about the affair; but many tens of thousands of Jews met Petronius again when he came to Tiberius…
Then Petronius came to them (at Tiberius): “Will you then make war with Caesar, regardless of his great preparations for war and your own weakness?” They replied, “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. And this they do did for forty days, neglecting to till their soil, though this was the season of sowing. Thus they continued firm in their resolution and proposed to themselves to die willingly rather than see the statue dedicated.
Faced with such heroic defiance on so large a scale, Petronius gave way and wrote to Caligula urging him, in Josephus’ words, “not to drive so many ten thousands of these men to distraction; that if he were to slay these men, he would be publicly cursed for all future ages.”
Nor was this a unique episode. The rabbinic literature together with the chronicles of the Middle Ages are full of stories of martyrdom, of Jews willing to die rather than convert. Indeed the very concept of Kiddush ha-Shem, sanctification of G-d’s name, came to be associated in the halakhic literature with the willingness “to die rather than transgress.” The rabbinic conclave at Lod (Lydda) in the second century C.E., which laid down the laws of martyrdom (including the three sins about which it was said that “one must die rather than transgress”) was an attempt to limit, rather than encourage, the phenomenon.
Of these many episodes, one stands out for its theological audacity. It was recorded by the Jewish historian Shlomo ibn Verga (15th-16th century) and concerns the Spanish expulsion:
I heard from some of the elders who came out of Spain that one of the boats was infested with the plague, and the captain of the boat put the passengers ashore at some uninhabited place. And there most of them died of starvation, while some of them gathered up all their strength to set out on foot in search of some settlement.
There was one Jew among them who struggled on afoot together with his wife and two children. The wife grew faint and died, because she was not accustomed to so much difficult walking. 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 Lord 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.”
Thereupon the gathered some earth and some grass, and covered the boys, and went forth in search of a settlement.
It is this passage which inspired Zvi Kolitz’s famous Holocaust fiction, Yossl Rakover Talks to G-d. One is awestruck by such faith – such obstinate faith.
Almost certainly it was this idea that lies behind a famous Talmudic passage about the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai:
And they stood under the mountain: R. Avdimi b. Hama b. Hasa said: This teaches that the Holy One blessed be He, overturned the mountain above them like a barrel and said, “If you accept the Torah, it will be well. If not, this will be your burial place.” R. Acha b. Jacob observed: This constitutes a strong protest against the Torah. Said Rava, Even so, they re-accepted it in the days of Ahasuerus, for it is written, the Jews confirmed and took upon them, meaning, “they confirmed what they had accepted before.”
The meaning of this strange text seems to be this: at Sinai (according to R. Avdimi) the Jewish people had no choice but to accept the covenant. They had just been rescued from Egypt. G-d had divided the sea for them; He had sent them manna from heaven and water from the rock. Acceptance of a covenant under such conditions cannot be called free.
The real test of faith came when G-d was hidden. Rava’s quotation from the Book of Esther is pointed and precise. The book is one of only two in Tenakh which does not contain the name of G-d. The rabbis suggested that the name Esther is an allusion to the phrase haster astir et panai, “I will surely hide My face.” The book relates the first warrant for genocide against the Jewish people. That Jews remained Jews under such conditions was proof positive that they did indeed re-affirm the covenant. Obstinate in their disbelief during much of the biblical era, they became obstinate in their belief ever afterward. Faced with G-d’s presence, they disobeyed Him. Confronted with His absence, they stayed faithful to Him. That is the paradox of the stiff-necked people.
Not by accident does the main narrative of the Book of Esther begin with the words “And Mordechai would not bow down.” 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, namely, bow down. At times, Jews found it hard to bow down to G-d – but they were certainly never willing to bow down to anything less. That is why, alone of all the many peoples who have entered the arena of history, Jews – even in exile, dispersed and 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 Moses, because the time will come when that stubbornness will be not a tragic failing but a noble and defiant loyalty. And so it came to be.