I bumped into one of my more obstinate students, Benjy, many years down the line. “Remember me?” he asked with a big smile. “As a kid, I was hard to handle. Fortunately, you recognized my potential. Years later, I decided to pay it forward. Today, I’m a high school principal. Thanks for not giving up on me.”

In Parashat Ki Tisa, G‑d seemed ready to give up on the Israelites, calling them a “stiff-necked” people.1 Moses then used this same terminology when asking G‑d to forgive them.2

Here’s the backstory.

Forty days after collectively experiencing the Revelation at Sinai, the Israelites made an idol—the Golden Calf. Just imagine the shocking scene: Upon descending Mount Sinai, Moses viewed the chaos and quickly reacted by shattering the tablets—the symbol of their covenant with G‑d. Moses ascended the mountain again, this time for the purpose of mending the “shattered” relationship between G‑d and the people. But how could that relationship be repaired and re-established, and why would Moses use the same term that G‑d used as a reason for abandoning them—stiff-necked people—as a reason for staying with them?3

Being stiff-necked need not be a negative trait:

Rabbi Isaac ben Redifa said in the name of R. Ami: 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.”4

The Jewish people could be just as stiff-necked in their loyalty to G‑d as they were in their disobedience.

As we look across the centuries, we can grasp the full measure of Moses’ vision. Throughout history, even at risk of their lives, the Jewish people remained true to the covenant of their forefathers. Many stubbornly resisted the allure of assimilating into various host cultures. Regardless of the (often dire) consequences, they defiantly upheld their faith in the one G‑d of Israel. Persecution, humiliation and even torture could not cause them to renounce their belief.s Stories of martyrdom, of Jews willing to die for the sanctification of G‑d’s name (Kiddush Hashem) abound—from the Spanish Inquisition through pogroms and the Holocaust. Jews have always been willing to die rather than convert.

This year, Parashat Ki Tisa is read following Purim with which it shares a deep connection. The first written order of genocide against all Jews is described in the book of Esther. Although G‑d’s name is not mentioned in the narrative, great insights can be extracted from Scripture.

The Torah alludes to the story of Esther in the verse, “I will surely hide my face (hasteir astir panai) from you on that day.”5 The Talmud6 explains that the name Esther, which has the same root as hasteir, expresses the hidden manner through which G‑d sometimes interacts with His children. The Torah warns us that at times, G‑d may not come to our immediate aid. It may appear as if G‑d has left us, but he is only “hiding his face” (hester panim). At such times, we’re told to contemplate our situation, examine our behavior and correct our transgressions.

When G‑d’s presence appears hidden from us, we’re confronted by a true test of faith. When a Jew’s faith endures during such challenging times, it proclaims his or her steadfast allegiance to the covenant of Israel. Hiding one’s face works both ways, like a reflection in a mirror. When we hide from G‑d by disregarding and defying His Divine will, He truly appears hidden from us. Paradoxically, we ignore G‑d when His presence is tangible, yet remain committed to Him while faced with what appears to be His abandonment. When G‑d sees this, He reveals that He was always with us, even when He appeared hidden.

Throughout world history, Jews have been distinguished by steadfast faith even while dispersed as minorities among the nations. Moses foresaw that being stiff-necked would be transformed into a virtue.

There’s a season in which it’s appropriate to plant seeds and a season to harvest. They don’t happen at the same time. As King Solomon said: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under Heaven.”7

There are many times when being stiff-necked actually can be a virtue: Jewish history clearly attests to it. The Jewish people also are called an am segula, “a treasured nation.”8 Both terms—stiff-necked and treasured—can describe us if we combine these traits that truly define who we are.

Making It Relevant

  1. Recognize how seemingly negative traits can be redirected towards positive outcomes. How is this presented in your own experiences?
  2. Never give up on yourself or others. You cannot always see your own or another’s potential greatness.
  3. As a Jew, strive to direct any stubborn traits you possess towards strengthening your attributes of unyielding faith and relentless commitment to Torah values and living by them.