Erev Rosh Hashanah

Erev Rosh Hashanah

Kishinu Oref—Finding a Chiropractor for our Stiff Necks

I’ve noticed over the years that people know that Rabbis work hard to prepare for the High Holy Days. People even ask, “Are you ready?” as Rosh Hashanah draws near, which is really kind of sweet! Perhaps it’s less obvious that we rabbis are also Jews trying to prepare ourselves for repentance just like we tell everyone else to do. When I do my personal teshuvah work, I think: One, it’s such a great idea to make time for soul-searching and repentance! And, two, it’s really hard—hard to make time; and then, hard to do!!

It’s hard because there are many obstacles to Teshuvah. Tonight, as we begin the Ten Days of Repentance, I’m going to talk about just one impediment, building on a derashah I did a few weeks ago.

Everything we do during these ten days — the soul-searching, the regrets, and the repair of relationships — leads up to the confessions of Yom Kippur. Every time we begin the confessions, we declare:

Our God and God of our ancestors, hear our prayer; do not ignore our plea. Our God and God of our ancestors, we are neither so insolent nor so stiff-necked as to claim in Your presence that we are righteous, without sin; for we, like our ancestors who came before us, have sinned

 

And in case we didn’t get the point, the confessions themselves repeat it. In Ashamnu, we proclaim, kishinu oref—“We have been stiff-necked.” And one of the Al Heit confessions is Al Heit she-hatanu l’fanekha b’kashiut oref—“We have sinned against you by being stiff-necked.”

The term “stiff-necked” is found in the Torah. You would expect that a people’s holy book would praise them as wise, powerful, virtuous, and all-and-all the best darn people in the world. The Torah does have such language, but there are also many places where God says, in effect, don’t get a swelled head. We read one of them a few weeks ago:  Know, then, that it is not for any virtue of yours that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess; for you are a stiff-necked people — am k’shei oref. (Deut. 9:6)

And a little later on we find: The Lord further said to me: “I see that this is a stiff-necked people. (Deut. 9:13) The Torah calls us stiff-necked six times.  Rashi explains it “They turn their stiff necks from those who reprove them and refuse to listen to them.”

This expression entered the English language, and is defined not just as stubborn, but “haughtily stubborn.” That fits well with Ibn Ezra’s understanding:It is like someone hurrying along his way who does not turn his neck to one who calls out to him.”

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler clarifies further, “What does it mean to be stiff-necked? This is when someone sees the truth with his own eyes but is still not willing to change his negative ways.” That’s why it’s repeated in the confessions: If you are stiff-necked, you will never repent.

Overcoming stubbornness is challenging for two reasons. First, stubbornness isn’t always bad. Second, it’s hard to assess your own obstinacy.

Most of the Al Heit’s are obvious sins—violence, lying, gossip—but Rabbis saw that stubbornness can be good, as a midrash relates:

R. Isaac b. Redifa said in the name of R. Ammi: You think that [stiff-necked] is said disparagingly, but it is really in their praise [for the people of Israel have accepted the commandments of the Torah, and they are strong in their spirit against the nations of the world who stand against them trying to turn them from their faith with mockery or by force, but they [the Jewish people) [instead are willing to] give up their lives for the sanctification of the Name]…R. Abin said: To this very day Israelites in the Diaspora are called the stiff-necked people [by virtue of their adherence to their Torah without deviating from it].[1]

It’s a good point. We would never have survived all the hardships of our history if we hadn’t been steadfast in our beliefs. Natan Sharansky is one of my favorite examples. He was a refusenik, and spent nine years in Soviet prison, refusing to yield to his jailers in any way. There was a worldwide campaign to get him released. Finally it was approved, and he was taken to Potsdam in East Germany bordering West Berlin. As the Jewish Agency web site tells it, “He was…led across the Glienicke Bridge to West Berlin where he was exchanged for a pair of Soviet spies. Famed for his resistance in the Gulag, he was told upon his release to walk straight towards his freedom; Sharansky instead walked in a zigzag in a final act of defiance.” That’s how we survived centuries of persecution.

By the way, I had the thrill of walking that bridge this summer, and I zigged a little bit in Sharansky’s honor.

How do we tell when we are being destructively stubborn, and when we are being tenacious in our beliefs? We have to be aware when our subjective self-regard leads us to esteem our own deeds and disparage the very same behaviors in others. This is captured in an exercise called I, you and he. For example: I am eloquent, you are loquacious, he talks too much. When thinking about stubbornness, we tend to say, “I am tenacious, you are stubborn, he is rigid.”

It’s easy to tell stubbornness from tenacity at the extremes. Bashar Assad, who would murder half his country to stay in power, plainly embodies toxic stubbornness. On the other hand, Olympic sprinter Manteo Mitchell, who ran his race with a broken fibula, represents heroic tenacity. But how can we discern the difference between tenacity and persistence (good) and stubbornness (bad) in our own behavior?

I love what the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher said: “The difference between perseverance and obstinacy is that one comes from a strong will, and the other from a strong won’t.”

This is what we call pig-headedness—reflexive resistance. But stubbornness has another root: egotism. As I found on one consultancy’s web site, “Stubbornness is tenacity without humility.”[2] To which I would add: so is self-righteousness. So we need to ask routinely, “How much of my persistence is motivated by ego?”

Rabbi Mendy Herson writes, “Ego is the poison which turns conviction into stubbornness and tenacity into inflexibility. Ego is my psychological smoke and mirrors, skewing my sense of right and wrong, and blurring the lines between principle and personal agenda.”

Or, as Rabbi Berel Wein put it, citing the most dramatic example of stubbornness in the Torah, “A little humility on the part of Pharaoh would have saved himself and Egypt a great deal of grief.”[3] Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal to yield came from his monstrous self-regard. We can see the same trait in Haman.

One of my favorite writers, Rabbi Zelig Pliskin gives us another take on good and bad stubbornness, “In interpersonal relationships flexibility is crucial, but in spiritual matters tenacity and persistence are necessary. Unfortunately many people are flexible in spiritual matters and inflexible when it comes to dealing with other people.”

That is, we tend to be forgiving toward ourselves and harsh in judging others.

Which brings us back to the teshuvah challenge before us. I’m sure everyone here can remember a broken relationship that never healed because of a stubborn refusal to apologize or an obstinate unwillingness to forgive. If you always have to be right, you will never repent. Stubbornness often wears the mask of self-righteousness.

Jewish law understands that we must overcome our egos in order to seek or grant forgiveness. As Maimonides summarizes it, “It is forbidden for a person to be cruel and refuse to be pacified. Rather, one should be easy to pacify and difficult to anger. And, at the time that someone who has done wrong asks for forgiveness, one should forgive with a complete heart and a willing soul.”[4] So tonight I say, tenacity in teshuvah is good. Tenacity in holding on to grudges and blame is bad.

Many of the Torah’s uses of the term stiff-necked come from the story of the Golden Calf. God tells Moses  “I see that this is a stiffnecked people.” (Ex. 32:) God repeatedly refers to the people’s stubbornness. This was surprising to Rabbi Simchah Zissel Braude, one of the great mussar teachers. Yes, stubbornness is bad a trait, but isn’t idolatry the issue here?

He explains, “Stubbornness was the greater issue. For if someone is not stubborn, he is open to having his flaws pointed out to him. He has the capacity to hear another person critique his behavior and then introspect and see his own wrongs. He then has the chance of doing teshuvah. But someone who is stubborn, someone who is completely close-minded to what others have to say, especially when they are speaking about him, he almost certainly will never realize that what he is doing is wrong and therefore has no chance at ever doing teshuvah properly.”[5]

Simply put, if you resist admitting fault; if you obstinately reject criticism and feedback—you will slam the door on change, improvement and repentance. And you will poison relationships and narrow your life.

In addition to the reflection and introspection that we need in order to see our own behavior clearly, we can get help from friends. The Book of Proverbs says ne·emanim pitz·ei oheiv—“The wounds of a friend are faithful.” The wounds are words of critique and objective insight. That can sting, but if given out of love and support, they help us dig out of the ruts of intransigence. A good friend can be a chiropractor for our stiff necks.

And at any given moment, and certainly right now, we can simply ask ourselves, “Am I stubborn to my own harm?  Am I refusing to apologize or withholding forgiveness out of ego or spite? Would my life be better if I relented?

I’ll finish with a story that sums up the harm that stubbornness can cause. Please notice the role of ego and the unyielding need to be right. This story is probably apocryphal, but it is true to real human behavior.

One version presents the transcript of a radio conversation of a US naval ship with Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland in October, 1995.

Americans: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision.

Canadians: Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.

Americans: This is the Captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.

Canadians: No. I say again, you divert YOUR course.

Americans: THIS IS THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER USS LINCOLN, THE SECOND LARGEST SHIP IN THE UNITED STATES’ ATLANTIC FLEET. WE ARE ACCOMPANIED BY THREE DESTROYERS, THREE CRUISERS, AND NUMEROUS SUPPORT VESSELS. I DEMAND THAT YOU CHANGE YOUR COURSE 15 DEGREES NORTH, THAT’S ONE FIVE DEGREES NORTH, OR COUNTER-MEASURES WILL BE UNDERTAKEN TO ENSURE THE SAFETY OF THIS SHIP.

Canadians: This is a lighthouse…your call.

Kishinu oref—we have been stiff-necked. As we begin our repentance journey, let’s ask ourselves: Have ego and self-righteousness smothered self-awareness and apology? Have we been rigid in our relationships and unforgiving in our quarrels? The antidotes to stubbornness are humility, self-awareness and empathy; frank friends can help. May we summon them all during these ten Days of Repentance so that we can steer past the rocks of our obstinacy toward the safe port of renewal — of our lives, our relationships, and our open hearts. Amen.



[1] Midrash Exodus Rabbah 42:9, with bracketed comments from Midrash Rabbah Ha-m’vu·ar [The Explained Midrash Rabbah])

[2] http://www.newandimproved.com/newsletter/2045.php

[3] http://www.torah.org/learning/rabbiwein/5768/vaera.html#

[4] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Repentance” 2:10

[5] As quoted by Rabbi Moshe Rosenstein at www.cckollel.org/html/parsha/shemos/kisisa5764.html