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.

Praying After Pittsburgh

I am a Rabbi who is privileged to serve an intentional community which takes the form of an independent congregation. We are the only Jewish congregation on the east side of Portland Oregon. We are not only independent but young – only 15 years old – and thus tend to carefully think through our every act. While some might say we often indulge in over-thinking our issues, it seems to me that it’s hard to spend too much time musing, sharing our thoughts and commiserating regarding the growing sense of fear we share as Jewish U.S. citizens.

 

Our congregation’s median age is about 40, and many of our members are young parents. Like many welcoming and progressive congregations, we count many LGBTQI+ identified Jews, some Jews of Color, and a fair number of committed non-Jews – I like to call them “fellow travelers” – among our congregational family. Many of our members have had to fight to feel equally included in the Jewish peoplehood of U.S. society. It is a harsh irony that those who have struggled to be counted in our Jewish minyan of prayer, study and mutual support now feel unsafe in that identity. They now feel comfortable in a place of prayer – and now they are targets. Life is funny that way.

 

By far the most heartbreaking conversation I have had as Rabbi or as a Jew about the Pittsburgh massacre of Jews at prayer was the one I had recently at a gathering of the parents of our youngest children.

 

“As an adult, I feel I know what to do. I’m okay. I can understand what happened, in terms of Jewish history, and anti-Semitism, and the social chaos of this moment,” said one mother. “But as a parent, I’m lost.” Another added through tears, “I just don’t know what I have to do to keep my children safe.”

 

This is the long-dawning, terrible truth of our age: there is no safety. Certainly, we all know this theoretically; that at any moment, an accident could happen or an illness strike, G*d forbid. But this is different, because the evil from which we would shield our children is deliberate. When I’m at the gym, I’ve been thinking this week about the character of the mother in the old movie “The Terminator.” The magical thinking in which a parent might wish to indulge is exacerbated by such Hollywood movies, in which a mother of a threatened child goes about becoming strong enough to shield him – and coincidentally save the world. In the real world, mothers and children are, regularly, swept away together.

 

Waking up is difficult for us. We Jews don’t have the psychic muscles for this – we who have been able to take refuge in white privilege, and succeeded in integrating ourselves into mainstream, affluent U.S. society. We can’t cope with the level of stress our persecuted ancestors took for granted in their lives. Many of my people were already complaining of unbearable levels of stress and no sense of how to deal with it.

 

We are only now beginning to be able to understand the concrete reality of what it means to live in a world in which our children are not safe, just as mothers of black and brown babies and LGBTQI+ mothers and indigenous mothers – and fathers – have known for a long, weary, soul-destroying time. What we need to learn from them is this: There is no safe space for any of us right now. Safety cannot be carved out of the terror of our days. New Zealand has closed its doors and Canada looks at us askance; we can’t buy a pied-a-terre in some other saner place. There is no way to hold ourselves apart from the coming cataclysm, and be safe while all others suffer around us. As Anne Frank presciently wrote, I can hear the approaching thunder, which will destroy us too.

 

I don’t use my phone on Shabbat. On that morning, the news about the massacre at the Tree of Life congregation was shared with me five minutes before I was to begin to lead my own congregation in prayer. We were calling a young girl up to the Torah for the first time, as a bat mitzvah. I determined not to announce what had happened, lest her family’s joy be overshadowed by the horror just outside the door. We who knew sang with more fervor than usual, I think, and more joy – joy is also a form of defiance. And I thought to myself, there are worse ways to go than leading prayer, in the midst of something meaningful on which I’ve built my life. Better, even, perhaps, than the random accident or illness, in some way.

 

We opened our doors the next evening to welcome about two hundred people who sought solace with us in vigil. We lit candles and we hugged each other, and the we went back out into the uncertainty of our lives. What my people and I are realizing is that in the end, our lives are not made meaningful by living them in safety but with intention. It’s an old High Holy Days trope but now with renewed intensity: who by fire? who by water? the old prayer doesn’t ask whether or not we are going to die, but only that we consider how.

 

My people and I stand at a place where two paths diverge. Many of us will opt for the more guarded, more armed, and more anxious effort to keep ourselves safe. But in the end, it’s not really about safety. It’s all about what you are doing when death finds you. I will do my best to help my people find the way to lead with integrity, not with fear, for however many days we have. In this way, I believe, the memory of each of us can be a blessing.

 

As I say to my people: hazak hazak v’nithazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other, and we will be all right, no matter what comes.