Days before Rosh Hashana it’s very appropriate to be reading the Torah portion of Netzavim. In one segment of this week’s Torah portion, it discusses a time in the Land of Israel where people will be going astray and worshipping idols or anything besides Hashem. Hashem will even send warnings through nature for them to repent and fix their ways however they will not heed to the signs as it says, “Perhaps there is among you a man, woman, family, or tribe, whose heart strays this day from Hashem, our G-d, to go and worship the deities of those nations. Perhaps there is among you a root that produces hemlock and wormwood. And it will be, when he [such a person] hears the words of this oath, that he will bless himself in his heart, saying, “I will have peace, even if I follow my heart’s desires,” in order to add the [punishment for the] unintentional sins [of this man] to that of [his] intentional sins. Hashem will not be willing to forgive him; rather, then, Hashem’s fury and His zeal will fume against that man, and the entire curse written in this book will rest upon him, and Hashem will obliterate his name from beneath the heavens” (Devarim 26:17-19).
Rav Saadia Gaon, not being as concise as usual, depicts the very decrepit state these people are in. They are rooted in poison and are as bitter as bitter melons. “They calculated in their mind saying, ‘I will only have peace, and I will go according to the desire of my heart in order to rid myself of the draught through getting drunk. Hashem will not be willing to forgive him for this, rather Hashem will get very angry, and His wrath will be upon him and all the curses (from the previous parsha) will cling to him.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
It sounds like this person or people are quite delusional! They are steeped in terrible habits and ways, to the extent of believing and worshipping in idolatry, and they are so far gone that the Torah says their roots are bitter and poisonous. Besides that, they seem to be getting hit with violent warnings from Hashem to repent, and they are totally oblivious to the signs and decide to just drink away all their problems and follow whatever naturally gets rid of the present problems. They use whatever their heart desires, to the extent that they tell themselves everything is fine, I am doing nothing wrong. Meaning, they feel they can turn to science and any natural means to find solutions and resolve problems and ailments that are around them. And at the end of the day, they can just drink away all their problems as if they didn’t happen.
At that point, Hashem rains down terror on them, and the Torah goes on to say, “The later generations will say, your children who will arise after you and the foreigner who will come from a distant land, when they will see the plagues of that Land and its illnesses with which Hashem has afflicted it… And all the nations will say, ‘For what reason did Hashem do so to this Land; why this wrathfulness of great anger” (Devarim 29:21-23). The Torah goes on to say that the nations will be told that because these people rebelled against Hashem and His Torah they were severely punished and thrown out of the land of Israel.
The Torah concludes this section by saying, “The hidden are for Hashem, our G-D, but the revealed are for us and our children forever, to carry out all the words of this Torah (29:28). Rav Saadia Gaon says on this pasuk that the later generation, your children that will come afterwards, “shall take mussar, learn a lesson, and should say this, ‘The hidden are for Hashem, our G-D and all that is revealed they are for us and our children…'”
What is this lesson that we, the later generations, are supposed to take to heart, and how is it related to what the earlier generations did wrong?
The root of the problem with the earlier generations was not the idolatry itself, or any other sin they had committed, but the way they handled the situation when Hashem sent signs and warnings to repent. Instead of looking at their inner self and figuring out how to change their own lives, they looked around and tried to fix all the problem that came their way; draught, famine, sickness, etc. using scientific solutions. When those didn’t work, they turned to hallucinogens, but they ignored the real issue. Therefore, the lesson the later generation should take is that the hidden reasons behind why things in this world happen, be it climate change and the weather, pollution, disease etc. is for Hashem to deal with. We have to focus our time and energy into what is revealed to us, which is “to carry out all the words of this Torah.”
This does not mean we must stay ignorant of the sciences and not understand how the human body and the natural world around us works. However, it must be done in the framework of being sure our focus is to learn and observe the Torah, Hashem’s blueprints of creation and the handbook for mankind. If the Torah is our focus and the physical world is just part of our understanding of serving Hashem to the optimum, then the world would be a better place and we would not have to turn to alcohol or other substances to escape reality.
Good Shabbos and a good gabentched year,
Rabbi Dovid Shmuel Milder
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There is a negative character trait called קשי עורף, meaning literally: “stiff necked;” obstinate or stubborn. Before one says vidui [confessions of sins], he or she says: “…for we are not so brazen and obstinate as to say before you, Hashem, our G-D, and the G-D of our forefathers, that we are righteous and have not sinned – rather, we and our forefathers have sinned.” It sounds from here that it might even be delusional. This negative trait is then mentioned as one of the confessions of vidui, קשינו ערף, we have been obstinate.
In this week’s Torah portion of Ki Sisa we have the infamous episode of the Sin of the Golden Calf. When looking through the pesukim one will find that the underlying problem was this very trait, that the Jewish people were a stiff necked nation, עם קשה עורף. The Ibn Ezra defining what that means says: “That he will not listen to what was commanded of him just like a person who is walking down the street and doesn’t [even] turn his head when a person calls him.” The Sforno expounds on the extent of this stiff-necked obstinacy by saying: “Their neck is like an iron sinew and they will not turn to listen to the words of any righteous teacher in any manner; hence there is no hope that they will repent.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
How does one deal with this kind of people, especially a father who has to deal with a son with that type of attitude? Our Father, our King knew how to deal with His children, and there is a lesson that can be learned in this circumstance, when analyzing each time Hashem mentions “a stiff necked nation” in this Torah portion.
Rav Saadia Gaon usually has a very terse commentary, more of an explanation of various words in the Torah. But in this case he had a few extra words to say, and based on his explanation of the pesukim there is a formula we can follow to deal with such a negative nature.
While Moshe Rabbeinu was still on the mountain after Hashem gave him the first tablets and while the Sin of the Golden Calf was taking place, “Hashem said to Moshe, ‘I saw this nation and behold they are a stiff necked nation. And now leave me, and I will flare up my anger at them and destroy them, and make you into a great nation’” (Shemos 32:9, 10). Rav Saadia Gaon explains that Hashem is saying “I know from before that this nation is a stiff necked nation, and now if you cease from praying on their behalf, I will get angry at them and destroy them.”
Step one of “dealing with them” was to recognize the underlying problem. The issue was not the actual Sin of the Golden Calf; the real issue was their stubbornness. Step two was to have someone pray on their behalf to make sure no drastic measures would be taken by Hashem. Prayer always helps.
After that Moshe went down the mountain and smashed the tablets, destroyed the Golden Calf, and killed everyone directly involved with it. Then Hashem decrees aboutthe Jewish people, in pasuk 35, that they shall die before their original decreed time. After that Hashem says He is willing to bring their survivors into the land of Canaan to inherit it as was promised to their forefathers, but that He will no longer lead the way. Rather, an angel was placed in charge in His stead, driving out the Canaanite nations. The pasuk says the reason for this is because “to the land flowing with milk and honey, for I will not go up amongst you since you are a stiff necked nation, lest I will destroy you on the way.” Rav Saadia Gaon contributes as well by saying that Hashem is telling them: “For I will not bring up my honor (The Holy Presence) amongst you.” At this point the nation as a whole recognized how grave of a mistake they had gotten themselves into, and they took off their jewelry as a sign of mourning that the Shechina, Hashem’s Holy Presence, refused to be amongst them, and that He instead was going to send an angel to guide them on their journey to the Holy Land, as clearly stated in pasuk 4. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
In pasuk 5, “Hashem said to Moshe, ‘Tell the Children of Israel, you are a stiff necked nation, one second I will be amongst you and I will destroy you, and now you shall take off your jewelry and I will inform you what I will do to you.” Didn’t Hashem just tell them He cannot be amongst them lest He will come to destroy them since they are obstinate? Also, they had already taken off their jewelry of their own fruition; why did Hashem tell them to take it off again?
At this point Rav Saadia Gaon elaborates a bit and says that Hashem is telling them because you are a “stiff necked nation, and if I would bring My honor to dwell amongst you I would destroy you in a second, and now leave your jewelry off indefinitely until I will inform you what I shall do with you.” Hashem is telling Moshe to inform the Jewish People that as a consequence of them still having this negative trait of being stiff necked and stubborn, even though we see that they were starting to feel remorse, as demonstrated by the fact that they took off their jewelry, but Hashem, being able to look deep into the heart of every living being, saw the negative trait still swelling up inside, not completely gone. He therefore told them that it was too dangerous to rest His Shechina amongst them because he did not want to harm them if they acted in a way that in fact deserve it. And indeed, they should continue to stay in that state of remorse, keeping their jewelry off, until otherwise informed. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
This seems to be step 3 in how to deal with someone so stubborn and obstinate. After pinpointing the underlying problem, and asking someone to pray on their behalf, you have to knock some sense into the person. Show them the consequences of their attitude; get them to start thinking about what is wrong with the way they are acting, and start feeling remorse. Then, step 4, once the individual is starting to quake in their boots, show them that you are in control and that they should continue feeling guilty for what they did until further notice.
Moshe then went back up to the top of Har Sinai to chisel out the second set of tablets and prayed to Hashem on the Jewish people’s behalf without eating or sleeping for forty more days and nights. During that time Hashem taught him His 13 attributes of Mercy. Then “Moshe rushed to prostrate himself on the ground bowing, and he said ‘If you please find charm in your eyes, Hashem, please Hashem walk amongst us, for they are a stiff necked people and you should forgive our iniquities, and our sins, and secure us as your possession” (Shemos 34:8, 9). Rav Saadia Gaon explains that Moshe was advocating to Hashem on the Jews behalf and including himself amongst them, beseeching Hashem to rest His honor amongst us and choose us. Hashem finally responds positively: “And He said: “Behold! I will form a covenant; in the presence of all your people, I will make distinctions such as have not been created upon all the earth and among all the nations, and all the people in whose midst you are shall see the work of the Lord how awe inspiring it is that which I will perform with you. Keep carefully what I am commanding you today: Lo! I will drive out from before you the Amorites and the Canaanites, the Hittites and the Perizzites, the Hivvites and the Jebusites” (Pesukim 10 and 11). (Click here and here for Hebrew text.)
The fifth step of dealing with someone who is stiff necked is to have someone else advocate for them, on their behalf, since they themselves are still too stubborn to completely repent and mend their ways. Finally, step six, is to accept who they are, and that they are still your son, as Rav Saadia Gaon points out in pasuk 10, Hashem acknowledges “there is no one created like them in the whole entire world” and though they still have this negative trait etched inside them, and it is possible it will surface again (as it did), still in all, His children are worthwhile to keep and be amongst. They are not worth trading in for anything in the world, and He invested so much in them with all the miraculous wonders, so why give up on them?
This should be a lesson for all of us if we have a child who is rebellious and refuses to listen to his or her parents. We must first acknowledge the underlying issue, start praying for the child’s welfare or have someone else pray for their welfare on your behalf. But you must then confront the child and show him or her who is boss, let them sweat and think about the consequences of their actions and viewpoints. However you must also seek a third party vantage point to advocate for the adolescent on his or her behalf in order to defend them and arouse mercy and compassion. Finally, acknowledge that they might not be perfect but they are the best children we have and should never be exchanged for anyone else.
Who knows, it might make an incredible impression on the child. Look what happened to the Children of Israel. They saw how much Hashem loved and cared about them and they reciprocated by donating their wealth for the construction of the Mishkan in order so that Hashem’s Shechina will rest amongst them and guide them. The underlying attribute might not have been completely annihilated but was severely subdued and only cracked the surface again far and between.