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Tzw: Being A Stiff Necked People

In this week's haftarah, it says the following:

"Since the day that your fathers came forth out of the land of Egypt until this day, I sent you all My servants the prophets, sending them day (after day) with every fresh morn. Yet they (the sons of Judah) hearkened not to Me nor did they incline their ear, but stiffened their necks; they did worse than their fathers..." (Jeremiah 7:25)

This verse strongly suggests that being "stiff necked" is undesirable [as a character trait].  In fact, it is portrayed as downright deplorable in verses twenty-eight to thirty-two by G-D himself.

But how are we to reconcile this with the following quote from  balpeh.jpg (4295 bytes) :

"It is taught in the name of R. Meir: Why was the Torah given to Israel? Because they are of a fiery temper. For in the school of R. Ishmael it is taught: 'At His right hand was a fiery law unto them' (Deut 33:2) means that the Holy One said, 'It is right that they be given a fiery law (to restrain them).'  Some say, Israel's laws had to be of fire, for if the Torah had not been given to them, no people or tongue could withstand them. In this connection, R. Simeon ben Lakish said: There are three creatures of a fiery temper: among nations, Israel; among beasts, the dog; and among fowls, the cock.
     R. Isaac bar Redifa said in the name of R. Ammi: 'You might think that such a description of Jews (as fiery tempered) is disparaging. In fact, it is complimentary. Their attitude is: Let me be a Jew or be crucified! Indeed, as R. Avin said, to this day Jews outside the Land are called 'stiff-necked' people. "

So which is it? Is being stiff-necked [fiery tempered] a good or bad thing? And what does it mean to be stiff-necked?

A number of important lessons can be learned by examining these important questions.

The first lesson involves the effects of losing our temper in an uncontrolled manner. According to the oral law, being stiff-necked involves a fiery temper.  In certain sources like the Mishnah Torah and R. Hillel, we are told that a bad disposition (explosive anger) is considered physically unhealthy and is not praiseworthy (to say the least) . The RMb"M wrote that the correct path is moderation in all character traits. He writes the following about restraining our anger: "Do not be hot-tempered and easy to anger, nor like a corpse without feelings. Rather show anger only over important matters in order to prevent others from behaving wrongly on future occasions (Hilchoth Daiot)."  Therefore, we can categorically say that losing our temper at others is never a healthy or praiseworthy thing to do.  We must work on ourselves so as not to lose our tempers. And our wise men have offered a myriad of techniques on how to do this--but this is not the place to describe them.

The RMb"M says that anger has its place with regard to extremely important matters. Indeed, R. Isaac Bar Redifa (see verse above) praises Israel's fiery disposition-- in the right place and time. R. Isaac bar Redifa teaches that a fiery [stiff-necked] attitude can be harnessed for the good when it used to stand up against oppression.

Another lesson involves the makeup of a Jew's character and inclination.  Indeed we are inclined towards a fiery temper (according to R. Ishmael) that (I suggest) may stem from pride or arrogance .  We should constantly anticipate and watch out for this innate trait--as it could express itself (unpredictably and/ or negatively) at any moment.  Realize that you do have the ability to control your temper. Such a person is worthy of praise. Understand that you do not have control over another person. As the brain has been associated with the N'shamah (G-Dly soul), it makes sense to use it as the ultimate control center for our behavior. The mind must be made to harness the heart. The Holy must harness the profane. Without saying too much more, we need to anticipate our inclination towards anger. Because anger can lead to a rebellion against G-D. 

Indeed, the Torah refers to our indifference to G-D as a "stiff-necked" behavior (as described in Jeremiah --see above). This can only lead to disaster... And this brings us to our last lesson.  The Torah (itself) is an antidote for being stiff-necked. But humanity still has free choice. The Rabbis tell us that G-D sent two prophets daily, one in the morning and one in the evening. But (according to the Book of Jeremiah), the warnings of these Prophets were ignored--as the people were being too stiff-necked to listen. In this usage, a stiff-necked people is one that is 'stubbornly disobedient'. Thus, there must be  a relationship between the stubbornness (mentioned in Jeremiah) and the fiery disposition (mentioned in our oral law).

The Relationship
Verse twenty-six (in Jeremiah) implies that hearkening and listening to G-D is the answer to a stiff-necked inclination. Being stiff necked is thus defined as the opposite of listening to G-D's commands.  In the oral law,  it is a fiery temper that is used to define "stiff-necked".  

The lesson is simple. Our fiery disposition predisposes us to avoid hearkening to G-D's commands.  This was the case in the times of Jeremiah. The Torah originally came to keep our hearts in check.  It was given to restrain us. But this is a catch twenty-two. We are still given the free choice to accept G-D's gift of restraint.  G-D wants us to appreciate and choose this gift based on our own free choice. Ultimately, it is still up to this fiery people to choose the good--to be restrained. 

The lesson is that we must have more mind over matter.  And through this greater dependence on the intellect (as opposed to the emotional heart), we will earn the ultimate reward: The redemption of the pure heart (itself).

As it says in Jeremiah 31: "Behold, days are coming, says the Lord, and I will form a covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, a new covenant....I will place my Torah in their midst and I will inscribe it upon their hearts, and I will be their G-D and they shall be My people."

1 B. Metz 25b; Exod. R. 42: 9