Shabbat Noakh: Time to be stiff-necked

Once upon a time I was asked, “Rabbi, who was it who first called the Jews ‘stiff-necked’? It seems anti-Semitic.” I had to laugh. “Well, actually, it was G*d, in Exodus 32.9.”

It seems to be the one thing that friends, enemies, and HaShem all agree upon, from Biblical to Talmudic to much later days even unto our own: the Jews are stubborn. Some have said it insultingly, others admiringly. 

A story from the Talmud:

Two Jews were taken captive in the Galilee, and their captor was walking behind them. One captive said to the other, ‘the camel walking ahead of us is blind in one eye.’ The slave driver said ‘hey, you stiff-necked people, how do you know this?’ They replied, ‘because the camel is eating the foliage along the way only on one side, the side it can see.”

Why did their captor call them “stiff-necked” at that moment? Because, says one commentary, despite their suffering, they were obstinate enough to spend time on a brain-teaser. Despite conditions of exile and slavery, they continued to be discerning and wise.

We Jews have been known for millennia as a stiff-necked people. 

It’s a quality that we very much need right now. To quote Rabbi Kalonymos Kalman Shapira, known as the Piacezner Rabbi, who taught in the Warsaw Ghetto and perished at Treblinka (his yahrzeit is today, 5 Heshvan, corresponding this year to October 23):

Being stiff-necked is one of the most transcendent virtues. Whoever is not stubborn and obstinate is inconstant and irresolute. In dealing with a person who cannot make up their mind, it may be impossible to arrive at any conclusion. In particular, when faced with temptation or a test of resolve, the inconstant one will fail. An obstinate person, on the other hand, is straightforward when spoken to. The more stiff-necked and stubborn a person is, the more they will endure, even if their conviction comes to be tested in some way.

We are being tested, my beloveds; we will continue to be tested in the days to come. As Jews we have a great teaching before us. Tests come and go, just as empires do; but there is that which does not change. To be stiff-necked is to hold on to that which we know is immutably true and holy, and be strengthened by that steadfastness.

What does it mean to be stiff-necked in our time? For some of us, it was the determination to sing even louder on the Shabbat two years ago when some of us were killed in a shul in Pittsburgh during Shabbat davening. In a few days we will observe the second yahrzeit of the Tree of Life massacre; on October 27 there will be a national virtual memorial hosted by Bend The Arc which you can join: https://www.bendthearc.us/1027 

To be stiff-necked, it seems, is to hold on to that which is just, and kind, and holy, even when we are experiencing personal, and justifiable, fear. It is to be determined not to let the fear win. It is to continue to find ways to reach out, to support, to give, even through a mask, even through fear. It is to care about each other even as the waters of the great Flood rise.

To be stiff-necked, teaches the Piacezner, is to be immutable, just as HaShem is: “I am HaShem; I have not changed” (Malakhi 3.6). Regardless of what happens to us, that which is holy will remain holy; that which is true will remain true. In all the chaos, such as the great destruction experienced by Noakh in our parashat hashavua, what holds us steady? The Rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto maintains that it is the great stubbornness of the Jewish people. The slave driver of the Talmudic story “had not realized that the Jews were so stiff-necked that they could still think clearly and cleverly even in the midst of slavery and pain.”

To be stiff-necked and continue functioning as practicing Jews, to endure and to perform the mitzvot incumbent upon us, involves a high level of stubbornness. In addition to this, to actually engage fully in study of the Torah, entering deeply into the knowing of it, is an even greater challenge – for regardless of the troubles besetting us, there is no great difficulty in putting on tefillin or fulfilling other practical mitzvot. But to study Torah, and especially to enter into the depths of the Torah, is extremely difficult.

We can’t compare ourselves to those who came before, neither Jews in the Roman Empire nor Jews in the Third Reich. What we face is not Noah’s Flood; we do not yet know what it is. All we can do in the face of the challenge of our own days is to carry on what they passed down to us: in the face of upheaval and the threat of worse, we can be stubborn. We can be stiff-necked Jews, in the best tradition of our ancestors. We can keep on doing tzedakah, studying Torah, singing loudly as we daven, and all the while believing in and working toward a better world. We can continue to declare that Mir Veln Zey Iberlebn – We Will Outlive Them.

Shabbat Noakh: The Fire This Time

On this Shabbat we are confronted with an intense and perplexing narrative. First, the world is overwhelmed with hamas, “lawless violence”, and then flooded unto utter destruction. The few who survive the catastrophic end of their world do not live happily ever after: a son takes advantage of his father’s vulnerability, reckless leaders gather followers for an assault on the ultimate authority – the G*d of Heaven and Earth. The parashah ends with human beings scattered over the face of the earth, driven away from the safety of the communities they have created by a new catastrophe of their own making.

The sense of relevance to us right now is terrifying. And this is not the first time. Why does it so often seem that the poem feels true, that “the center cannot hold / mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” (Yeats)? 

Even the most responsible among us wishes to avert our eyes from the view: to wash our hands of the whole affair, to declare plagues on both houses, to drop out. But note that not one of those idioms for abdicating one’s responsibility as a human being is Jewish. Not one.

To repeat the message of my Kol Nidre drash: for Jews, it is only through Jewish identity that we can find our way forward in the current hamas that threatens us. One must know who and what one is before one can act; one must feel oneself grounded and secure in one’s footing as a person before one can pick one’s way forward with clarity. When one is called upon to act, one must be able to say hineni, “here I am,” and know who is speaking.

This week’s parashah offers one explanation for the diversity of human cultures on earth. Regardless of how each became so richly different, each human culture offers the human beings who grow within it a home from which to act, to react, and to find meaning. The Lakota people find great strength for a struggle that might be called merely secular and political by seeing great cultural and spiritual depth within it. The Movement for Black Lives offers those within it a rich and clear sense of purpose drawn from similar deep wells that go all the way down to the same life-giving waters.

We Jews (and the people who love them, and who walk with us, to our great gratitude) stand so close to our own deep wells of meaning and support for our lives. There is deep and rich Jewish cultural and spiritual support to help us know how be a citizen of the U.S. in these days. Don’t let the rising waters knock you off your feet; let the lifeline of Jewish knowledge and connectedness keep you grounded.

It is not in the Jewish idiom to give up, or to divorce ourselves from the common good. Parashat Noakh teaches that we must find the strength not to avert our eyes from the vulnerability of our institutions and authorities, hoping that our own little boat will protect us and those we love. It will not. We must find a way to break these cycles of catastrophe and dispersal – we, especially, who know them too well from our own past.

Justice, justice, you must pursue if you would live. (Devarim 16.20) Jewish tradition interprets this verse as follows: we must pursue justice, not wait for it to come to us. And we must do so justly. Jews also do justice by supporting organizations pursuing justice. Consider supporting these organizations in their leadership work:

Bend the Arc – A Jewish Partnership for Justice

Equal Justice Initiative

The Network of Spiritual Progressives