We are a stiff-necked people. It is our greatest weakness, but it is also our greatest strength.
Rabbi Yitzhak Nissenbaum, who lived and died in the Warsaw Ghetto, taught ,“Almighty God, looks upon this people with favor, because what is now their greatest vice will one day be their most heroic virtue.”
And the Lord said to Moses: “Go, descend, for your people that you have brought up from the land of Egypt have acted corruptly.
“They have quickly turned away from the path that I have commanded them; they have made themselves a molten calf! And they have prostrated themselves before it, slaughtered sacrifices to it, and said: ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who have brought you up from the land of Egypt.’
“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.” (Exodus 32)
We know the ending of the story. We are still here. But we are a stiff-necked people and too often disobey God. We do tend to turn away from God, from His teachings. We get lost in the cacophony of everyday living. Or just surviving. But we come back. We do Teshuva – We repent. Take heart; it is our greatest weakness but it is our greatest strength.
It is as our strength that we must take pride, for we have survived the millennia pf attempts to exterminate us. We have suffered pogroms, persecution; we have been though auto de fés, ghettoized and put in shtetls. We have been through inquisitions and expulsions. And we have been gassed, shot and sent up in smoke. Despite the hate from so many, despite the attempts to exterminate us, WE are still here. We are stiff- necked. Like Mordechai in the Purim story, we will bow down to no one but God.
And that must irritate our enemies. This is what brings out their hate for us. They are jealous of us. Of our strength. Of our refusal to kneel, kow-tow, bow, or disappear. And today it is Israel that sticks in their craw. In less than 70 years the Jewish people have built a country that rivals all others, including many whose history is hundreds of years old. In less than a century, the Jewish state is a wonder in the making. A country that extols freedom and tolerance – perhaps too much – and love of other. This is a country of young people who are innovative, who excel in science and medicine, agriculture, green energy, music, art. A flourishing country when all around them are countries that are mired in death and destruction. Peoples who are tribal, unable to even like each other. Who live in countries that have contributed nothing to the betterment of the world, only terror and death.
None Compare to the State of Israel
Israel was declared a country at the same time as Syria and Iraq and India and Pakistan. Look at those countries, today. None compare to the State of Israel. None.
Never have the Jewish people wallowed in victim-hood, blaming others for our losses. Never have we demanded tribunal after tribunal to reconcile nor do we spend our time demanding reparations for the evil done to us. Never have we sat in refugee camps, waiting, waiting, waiting for other to fix it for us; to make it better. Had we done that we would be long gone. WE have always, like the phoenix, risen from the ashes – FROM THE ASHES – to reinvent ourselves. Rather than taking revenge as others have done throughout history, we have chosen to honor our God and care for all of His creations.
This is also what makes others hate us. We will not bow down to their ways. We will not break down and cry. We will not look back and get stuck in the past. We always look forward to the future for WE “choose life” for us and our children and our childrens’ children.
Anti-Semitism is in the blood. It courses through the veins of the vast majority of people on this planet. But we are stiff-necked people. We will not bow down to their demands. We will not convert to their ways no matter how sweet the siren song. We will not give up our homeland, not an inch.
Rosh Hashana – a Time to Unstiffen our Necks
Rosh Hashana is once again awaiting us. A new Year. New hopes and dreams. A time for gratitude, but also introspection. This is the time when WE, the Jewish people, unstiffen our necks, just a little, to bow down before our one God in order to ask forgiveness from others and from God for our sins. Our greatest sin, brothers and sisters, is forgetting to remember who we are, where we come from. God, in His Infinite Wisdom, made us separate from other nations. He chose us to be a Light unto those Nations, a dangerous vocation because He knew we would be attacked for daring to bring into the world a new ethic, a revolutionary ethic of compassion. An ethic that demands of all to care for the other; to move beyond tribe, so difficult to do. Killing the messenger is so much easier than learning to care for the stranger. So many have tried to extinguish the light. It will not happen.
I leave you with these extraordinary words. The special Al Chet prayer written in memory of the Six Million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, in the mahzor (High Holiday prayer book) of Rabbi Jules Harlow, the Rabbinical Assembly, 1972:
“We have sinned against You, and them, by refusing to hear,
And we have sinned against You, and them, by betraying friends.
We have sinned against You, and them, by hesitating.
And we have sinned against You, and them, by useless conferences.
We have sinned against You, and them, by being overcautious,
And we have sinned against You, and them, by not using our power.
We have sinned against You, and them, by senselessness.
And we have sinned against You, and them, by despairing.
We have sinned against You, and them, by being patient,
And we have sinned against You, and them by frivolity at dreadful times.
We have sinned against You, and them, by appeasement.
And we have sinned against you, and them, by theological rationalizations.
We have sinned against you and them, by complacency.
And we have sinned against You, and them, by communal strife
For all these sins, forgiving God, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.”
Yes, we have been stiff-necked. Kishinu oref.