Table for Five: Special Shabbat of Passover
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
And Moses hastened, bowed his head to the ground and prostrated himself, and said: “If I have now found favor in Your eyes, O Lord, let the Lord go now in our midst [even] if they are a stiff-necked people, and You shall forgive our iniquity and our sin and thus secure us as Your possession.” Ex. 34:8-9
Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Beis Knesses of Los Angeles (BKLA)
“One may think that stiff-necked is a negative thing. Not at all! Stiff-necked is a great characteristic! Consider the Jewish attitude throughout history ‘Either I will remain a Jew, or I will be killed!’” So teaches the Midrash (Shemos Rabbbah 42:9): Jews exist thanks to our stubbornness. The world is soaked in the blood of Jews who simply refused to let go of their Jewish identities. What holy stubbornness!
The saintly Rebbe of Kotzk was looking for a new city in which to settle. One town was friendlier than the next, inviting the holy man and his followers to settle there. Until he came to Kotzk. “No filthy Hassidim here,” they cried. He was pelted with stones! His followers were astonished when he announced immediately “we will settle here!” He explained “this is the first city we’ve visited where the people aren’t apathetic! If I can convince them to see things my way, these will be great people.” Apathy is the worst possible trait. Judaism cannot survive apathy. “Torah scholars who study together generally enter as enemies, because they do not accept one another’s positions, but they leave as beloved friends.” (Talmud, Kiddushin 30b, Rashi there) Passion and stubborn commitment keep the Torah alive and bring peace to the world.
“Torah scholars increase peace in the world!” (Talmud, Brachos 64a) When we truly care, and are fiercely stiff necked, then God sees us proudly as His stiff-necked people. We may be difficult at first, but may we never be apathetic!
Kylie Ora Lobell, Contributor, Jewish Journal
“A stiff-necked people.” It’s both a blessing and a curse. In parts of Exodus, it’s a curse: some of the Jewish people collect more manna than they’re supposed to, while others complain that they want to go back to Mitzrayim.
Worst of all, they create a Golden Calf. On the other hand, throughout our history, our stubbornness has been a blessing. In a Chabad.org article, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks quotes Rabbi Yitzchak Nissenbaum, who died in the Warsaw Ghetto and praised the Jewish people for being stiff-necked: “This is a people awesome in its obstinacy – and though now it is their failing, there will be times far into the future when it will be their noblest strength.” Nissenbaum was talking about the Jews in Exodus vs. his own generation, who fought for their faith even in the darkest of times. Today, when we’re battling this terrifying pandemic, we once again have to put our stubbornness to good use. We have to refuse to fall victim to scary headlines, and keep our unproductive anxiety in check with daily prayer. We must not worry about what our parnassah will be tomorrow, but instead give 10% of what we have to those in need now.
We need to continue celebrating Judaism, because our homes can be as holy as our synagogues. And we have to have an unwavering commitment to HaShem. We will get through this, no doubt, but the outcome depends on us. Keep your necks stiff; it’s the key to saving lives.
Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes, Interfaith Chaplain, Kaiser Panorama City
Chizkuni a 13th century Torah sage observes that in the prior chapter of Exodus, God relents re honoring the sacred covenant despite Israel’s stiff-necked character. In our pasuk, he understands Moshe’s justification thusly; “is there any better way to rein in the evil urge than the very presence of God?”
Moshe’s appeal acknowledges the ingrained flaws of The People and insinuates that this Holy relationship must be managed through God’s ever-steering presence, despite our rascal behaviors! In other words, Moshe is praying: “God, we need your constant presence, and for the long haul.”
Moshe himself was an earthly stand-in for God’s loving closeness among the people. In this long haul, the closeness of friends, sages, and family are highly prized and treasured. You don’t know what you’ve got until you lose it! So many from our circles are only available through virtual means, and those are paltry substitutions for human touch. We feel pangs of loneliness, missing the warmth of a hug, the holding of a hand. And yet curiously, such distancing consummates the ultimate decree; to preserve life! In a time when we all need constant reminders to perform the ultimate mitzvah of Pikuah Nefesh (saving a life) let us also remember that God has endowed us with outstanding faculties of knowledge and science to better fulfil this mitzvah.
And in so doing, God remains manifestly present among us, sanctifying our minds and hearts to enliven each generation . . . and may it be into the future.
Rabbi Rebecca Schatz, Assistant Rabbi, Temple Beth Am
We often approach Passover questioning, “What enslaves me today?” The responses range from homework to unhealthy relationships. A common response is “my email” or “my phone.” This year, that which we were slaves to is making us free. In recent past, our country has experienced life behind a screen – distancing ourselves; rushing toward purposeful responses; adapting to new norms, devoting ourselves to protecting and healing one another. Following God’s exaltation of the most profound Divine attributes, Moshe hurries to bow down towards the ground and prostrate himself: va’maher Moshe va’yikod artza va’yishtahu.
Why “hurriedly,” maher? And why va’yikod and va’yishtahu, two expressions of obsequiousness–bow and prostrate? The Rashbam comments that as soon as Moshe feared God’s departure, he hurried to show reverence and supplication to the Divine partner. The shoresh (root) for va’yikod is to dubiously bow, to follow one’s leadership in hesitation and yet va’yishtahu, is to prostrate in worship. Read with trope, the verse might say: “And Moshe hurried. And he hesitated to follow bowing towards the ground. And he prostrated in worship.” Moshe was quick to assume what he needed, what the people wanted and the relationship with God. Pesach 2020 sees us forced toward rapid determination, and carefully considered resolute action.
Be careful and be quick, mindful and expansive. Join Zoom minyanim, virtual classes, and make video calls to dear ones. May this be a Pesach where we rush to feel close to those we love, reevaluating that which we are enslaved to and finding new freedom!
Rabbi David Block, Associate Head of School, Shalhevet High School
With the fullest respect for the editors, I challenge the translation. The Hebrew does not quite say that God should forgive Israel “even though they are stiff-necked”; it says “ki” – because they are stiff-necked. But how can that be? Would not their stubbornness be reason not to forgive them? So I understand the translator’s choice, which is aligned with those of the Chizkuni and Ibn Ezra. And yet, like the Ramban, I believe we should read “ki” as “because.”
How? When Israel became God’s people, they were charged with the elusive mission to educate the world in God’s values. That task can be painfully difficult. People can be stubborn; they don’t want to hear their flaws and be told how they must improve. B’nei Yisrael needed to be taught how to be teachers. Moshe said to God: “You know why Israel needs Your forgiveness? Because they are stubborn. Stubbornness, unlike apathy, means they care deeply, but they don’t always see a fullness of perspective. They need You – the Master Educator – to guide them. To give them opportunities even after mistakes. God, you just charged them to become educators. Teach them how. Lead by example.”
Our new online learning environment is a blessing, but also comes with unique challenges for students. Perhaps we can learn an educational lesson about generosity and transition from God Godself. In the words of R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, God teaches us to: “forgive them again and again… every pardon presupposes a step towards betterment.” That’s education.
With thanks to Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Kylie Ora Lobell, Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes, Rabbi Rebecca Schatz, and Rabbi David Block
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