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: 

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 Kedoshim: Looking Through the Fear

As this Shabbat approaches I am thinking a lot about the Jews of Ukraine, especially my friends of Kyiv Congregation HaTikvah, where I served as Rabbi in 1993-1994. The words of this week’s parashat hashavua will be read in Kyiv as in Paris as in New York as in Portland, Oregon. We all read the same Torah, but we come to it from many different places. We read it religiously every year; what that means is that we approach the text willing to grant in advance that there is some relevance that we will find in it.

Relevance is, however, relative.

This year, I am blessed to read parashat Kedoshim from a place of personal security; I am not worried about civil war breaking out around me. I am not concerned about my physical safety when I go out on the street, and I do not expect a knock at my door. From this safe place, you and I might explore the esoteric concept of kedushah what does that word really mean in ancient Israelite context? We might devote some time to the question of why ritual and moral laws follow one another without apparent segue. And we might debate the relevance of the laws that seem most out of touch with our own sense of the sacred.

What does it mean to consider Kedoshim in Kyiv on this Shabbat, as the Jewish community wonders whether and how it might be used by both sides in the disintegration of civil society around them? What do esoteric concepts or curious questions mean when, in the midst of the fear of danger threatening oneself and one’s loved ones, one chooses to gather with one’s fellow Jews in a shul on this Shabbat in Kyiv, to study, or to pray?


In the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira of Pieceszna (alav hashalom, may he rest in peace) continued to study Torah and to pray with his fellow Jews in the midst of the Nazi terror. On May 4 of 1940 he taught about our parashah. He noted that we are commanded in this parashah to be holy, and we are told “you shall fear your G-d, I am יהוה” (Lev. 19.14). The key is in knowing that Elohim, “G-d” is the Name associated with Judgment, and that יהוה is the Name associated with Mercy; and remembering that holiness is a command upon us all.

How are we to be holy? According to Jewish tradition, we evoke holiness when we are together. Jews have always gathered in the synagogue when feeling frightened or sad. That is where we know we will find our people, and thus find comfort. There we know that we will not be alone with our fear. Together we search the Torah for a sense of meaning, and together we support each other in our prayers. When fear makes it impossible for your mind to shape coherent thoughts, we have two books full of thoughts and words about life – Torah and siddur – that are likely to serve at least as a good starting point. And we are there for each other, with each other, as we struggle. Thus we become a holy community, a kehillah kedoshah.

And what shall we do with the fear? That, the Pieceszna Rebbe suggested, is a doorway through which we can help each other walk forward. The task of the Jew when confronted with fear is to look for G-d’s presence within it, even as when we are surrounded by darkness, we look for light. There is more than one kind of fear.

There is a fear of punishment which can be characterized as a “fear of G-d”, i.e. fear that something one has done will bring judgment down upon one. It’s the kind of impulse that makes us look for a reason why we are suffering, assuming that it must be our own fault.

But suffering can help one rise through the lower sense of fear of G-d to a higher understanding, an “exalted fear”. This kind of fear is better called awe, and its power allows us to face concerns about safety, about crisis and about war with an inner serenity. Not because bad things will not happen to one, for they might – but because even in the midst of suffering and fear, one still remembers that there is not only judgment in the world, but also, on a higher level, mercy, compassion, and love. To be in awe of G-d in the face of crisis is to remain human, and to be able to continue to act as a human being. Lower fear makes us withdraw from others and care only for ourselves; the higher fear of awe keeps us caring for each other – a holy community, no matter what.

“You must always long for a greater holiness, and indeed make a greater and greater effort even if you are already holy. You will then find that “I am יהוה your G-d” – that Elohim, Judgement, has already become יהיה, Mercy.” (Sacred Fire: Torah from the Years of Fury, 1939-1942, trans. J. Hershy Worch, p. 86).

We Jews of the West are seeking any way we can to reach out to care for our sisters and brothers in Ukraine. If only it were in our power to turn their frightening situation into one of mercy! May they know that they are not alone this Shabbat – may they find their strength in one another’s presence and its holiness, and in knowing that we are thinking of them, and praying for their safety and well-being, as well. As the Pieceszner taught, this is how we can understand the verse “you shall fear your G-d, I am יהוה”.

Don’t be afraid of fear, however it reaches you, no matter where you are; you must look through it until you find that beyond it, there is the Mercy of other hands to support you, and always there is HaTikvah – hope.