Parshat Ki Tisa/Para- A Strong Spirited People

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(כי עם קשה עורף הוא וסלחת לעוננו ולחטאתנו ונחלתנו”  (שמות ל”ד:ט”

This week’s פרשה centers around one of the Jewish People’s greatest fallings- the חטא העגל. There are some מפרשים who believe that had בני ישראל not committed the Sin of the Golden Calf, משה would have descended from the mountain with the לוחות then led them to Israel where the final משיח would’ve come. Unfortunately, the Jewish People sinned, and G-d tells משה that He wishes to destroy the Jewish People. G-d says “ראיתי את העם הזה והנה עם קשה עורף הוא- I have seen this nation for it is a ‘stiff-necked’ nation” (שמות ל”ב:ט’). משה entreats השם, begging Him to reconsider and even asking to be destroyed instead of them. G-d, seemingly agreeing with Moshe  (“וינחם ה’ על הרעה אשר דבר לעשות לעמו”), says that He will not destroy the Jewish People, but He will not personally escort them to the Holy Land because “כי עם קשה עורף אתה פן אכלך בדרך- For you are a ‘stiff-necked’ nation, lest I destroy you on the way” (ל”ג:ד’). The Jewish People, horrified at the idea that G-d would not escort them to the land, begin the fast and mourn, and משה once again begs G-d to reconsider. G-d relents and forgives the Jewish Nation, even giving them His י”ג מידות רחמים, which many people recite twice each day, to remind us of His attributes of mercy and forgiveness. Then משה ends this groundbreaking encounter with G-d with a very interesting request:

“ויאמר אם נא מצאתי חן בעיניך ה’ ילך נא ה’ בקרבנו כי עם קשה עורף הוא וסלחת לעוננו ולחטאתנו ונחלתנו

And [Moshe] said: If I have found favor in Your eyes, please walk among us, for we are a ‘stiff-necked’ nation, and You shall forgive us for our signs and [continue to] make us Your heritage” (שמות ל”ד:ט’).

This final push for G-d’s mercy is particularly interesting because משה uses the same exact wording that G-d used to complain about the Jewish People as a reason to specifically forgive them. The question that begs to be asked is what is the meaning of a ‘stiff-necked nation’? How can ‘עם קשה עורף’, G-d’s reason for wanting to destroy the Jewish Nation, be a reason to forgive them?

There a few different interpretations in the מפרשים of how the last פסוק, quoted above, can be read:

רש”י teaches that in “כי עם קשה עורף הוא”, the word ‘כי’ can be translated as ‘if’, and the פסוק reads “If the Israelites are stubborn, then forgive them and keep them as your heritage.”רב אברהם בן עזרא (Rav Avraham Ibn Ezra), alternatively, writes that our פסוק can be read as “I admit that they are a stiff-necked people- therefore, please forgive our sins and wickedness and keep us as your heritage.” While both of these interpretations are definitely plausible, they require an unconventional interpretation of the word “כי,” which we cannot easily accept.

רמב”ן, taking a very different approach, answers that now that G-d has forgiven the Jewish People for the חטא העגל, it is much better for Him to be among us than an angel, because He will want to increase our blessings more since we are His people. According to the Ramban, it is specifically our rebelliousness that requires the close attention of a merciful and forgiving G-d, much like a rebellious child who needs the attention of a loving and forgiving parent.

While each of these interpretations has its merits, I think there is a very important lesson that we can learn from a more recent interpretation of this פסוק, one that takes a lot of recent and ancient history into consideration, taught by Chief Rabbi of England Lord Jonathan Sacks. Rav Sacks teaches that בנ”י being an עם קשה עורף was a negative aspect at the time of הר סיני. It caused them to commit the חטא העגל even after אהרון הכהן tried to discourage them through tricks and delays and even direct pleas. As a result, despite all odds, they did put together an עגל which they began to serve, and their ‘stiff-necked’ nature-their obstinate stubbornness- caused them to serve a foreign G-d right in front of Mt. Sinai. However, Rav Sacks continues, this obstinate nature has not always been a negative trait for עם ישראל. He writes:

“Nations will call on them to assimilate, but they will refuse. Mightier religions will urge them to convert, but they will resists. They will suffer humiliation, persecution, and even torture and death because of the name they bear and the faith they profess, but they will stay true to the covenant their ancestors made with you. They will go to their deaths saying Ani maamin, “I believe.” This is a people [truly] awesome in its obstinacy.”

In other words, משה is telling G-d that the Israelites’ obstinacy might’ve caused them to worship a calf at הר סיני, but, if G-d forgives them, it will be their greatest strength and will cause them to stay loyal in the future when many other nations would’ve lost faith. This is a truly positive עם קשה עורף and in this potential future merit, משה begged G-d for their forgiveness.

This idea of the Jewish People being a positive עם קשה עורף is a theme that can be seen throughout modern Jewish History- there are many stories during times of Jewish strife, whether during the time of the Babylonians, Romans, Spanish Inquisition or the Shoah, where it seemed impossible to keep serving G-d. Nevertheless, the עם קשה עורף stood up to the challenge and kept going strong.

However, the Jews were not always able to maintain their state of עם קשה עורף. Sometimes they fall, leading to G-d reminding us, through signs and punishments, that we are straying and need to recover our ‘stiff-necked’ nature. One of the biggest stories of this was commemorated last week as we celebrated Purim. Twice on Purim, we read the story of מרדכי and אסתר, where the Jewish People are threatened with utter annihilation by המן האגגי. If we look closely at the beginning of the מגילה, we can see a pattern of why this threat could have arisen. When המן initially proposes his plan to destroy the Jews to אחשורוש, he uses very interesting terminology to describe our forebears: “ישנו עם אחד מפזר ומפרד- There is one nation scattered and dispersed” (אסתר ג’:ח’). This description of the Jewish People, which is very much at odds with משה’s glowing praise of the עם קשה עורף in our פרשה, leads us to wonder how they ended up losing their ‘stiff-necked’ nature to become a scattered and dispersed nation. The answer to this can be found at the very beginning of מגילת אסתר, where we learn that אחשורוש threw a party for 180 days for all of the people of his Kingdom. During that time, we learn, the Jewish People also celebrated and connected with their gentile neighbors, and through this, they began to lose the cohesiveness that kept them an עם קשה עורף in that גלות. It was because of this that המן, realizing the Jews were weakened in their עם מפזר ומפרד state, started to plan his annihilation of the Jewish Nation. Fortunately, through מרדכי’s תשובה and כפרה efforts, the Jews became reunited, המן was defeated, and “קימו וקיבלו כל היהודים,” which I would like to creatively interpret as “The Jews reaccepted to try to be an עם קשה עורף in light of the disastrous results of losing it.” So, we see from the story of the מגילה that נס פורים was a time when the Jews stopped being an עם קשה עורף and they were only saved by reuniting and returning to staying separate.

This theme of Jewish Unity is also reflected how we celebrate חג פורים. The מגילה teaches that Purim is a “יום משתה ושמחה.” מסכת מגילה, elaborates on this by giving us four main commandments to do on Purim, each with a reason that fits with the holiday:

  1. קריאת מגילה (the reading of the Megila)- to recount the story of the נס
  1. משלוח מנות (sending of food packages)- unity by giving gifts to each other
  2. מתנות לאביונים (giving money to needy people)- unity by helping out our needy brothers to celebrate the חג
  3. סעודת פורים (festive meal of Purim)- celebrating the נס with close ones

These four מצות combine to become a theme which reflects what celebrate on פורים- our unity in the face of utter destruction and the miraculous ישועה that came from our תשובה. Unfortunately, many people disregard this beautiful theme to focus on a small Rabinic subset of the מצוה of סעודת פורים: the teaching that one much get drunk “עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי.” This idea, first taught in גמרא מגילה, is highlighted a small הלכה in the שולחן ערוך which is so famous that it has become a popular Purim song:

חייב אינש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי- A person is obligated to become drunk on Purim until he cannot distinguish between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordechai’. (אורח חיים תרצ”ה:ב’)

Unfortunately, the equally famous teaching by Rav Moshe Isserlis (רמ”א) on this הלכה is not as universally accepted, nor is it part of the song:

ויש אומרים דאין צריך להשתכר כל כך, אלא שישתה יוצר מלימודו… ואחד המרובה וחד הממעיט ובלבד שיכוין לבו לשמים- A person does not necessarily need to get that drunk (until עד דלא ידע), only more than usual… and whether one drinks a lot or a little, he must do it for the sake of Heaven. (רמ”א שם)

The רמ”א brings two huge points here. First, he teaches that one does not and should not necessarily get completely wasted- only a little bit more than usual. This means that unless someone has a serious consistent drinking problem, Rama would rule that he should not get so drunk until עד דלא ידע. Secondly, he teaches that the entire time one must be drinking לשם שמים. If at any point one loses this intent, and definitely if one started the סעודה without כוונה that his drinking is 100% לשם מצוה, he would not be יוצא the ענין of עד דלא ידע and might not even be יוצא the מצוה of סעודת פורים depending on how much festivity is lost once he becomes fully inebriated. The משנה ברורה, a הלכה source written by רב ישראל מאיר הכהן בעל חפץ חיים, agrees with this ruling, simply writing there “וכן ראוי לעשות.” Since the רמ”א is one of the biggest אחרונים sources for Ashkenazik מנהגים, anyone who holds by מנהגי אשכנז must follow his ruling- they cannot be “מחמיר” on themselves and drink as much they can to reach the level of עד דלא ידע.

Furthermore, Rav Moshe Feinstein once ruled that smoking is אסור מדארייתא because of “ושמרתם את נפשותיכם- And you shall guard yourselves.” Smoking is a terrible addiction which damages one’s liver. It has been taught by modern Poskim that drinking excessively is אסור for the same reasons- because it is damaging to the liver and violates ושמרתם את נפשותיכם. By this logic, anyone who believes that smoking is אסור should not be drinking excessively on Purim for the same reason

At the end of the day, there is reason to say that one should not drink excessively on Purim (to reach עד דלא ידע), whether because of “ושמרתם את נפשותיכם,” or because of the רמ”א’s פסק, or because it contradicts the rest of the מצות and the theme of פורים. By trying to achieve עד דלא ידע, especially for the wrong reasons, one risks causing discontent between himself and his brother Jews, which puts the Jewish Nation at risk of staying an עם קשה עורף, and risks a complete reversal of the miracle of Purim.

As we read פרשת פרה this week, we should take a lesson from the second half of the reading of the פרה אדומה, where we read of the need to stay away from anything that can be מטמא us. For many orthodox Jews, טומאה is anything relating to the outside world that could be a bad influence on them. I believe that we must expand this definition to include excessive drinking on Purim, because alcohol is an extremely dangerous poison which can turn even the closest brothers against each other. For the sake of our national unity and purity, we must be more careful to follow the רמ”א’s פסק on drinking on Purim and with השם’s help, we will be able to stay united in our stiff-necked-ness and avoid rifts in our unity, especially from doing stupid things to each other under the influence of alcohol when we wrongly believe our inebriated state to be the most important מצוה of Purim, and just as we try hard to stay away from the various types of טומאה in the פרשת פרה, we will also be equally careful to stay away from the potential טומאה of reaching עד דלא ידע.

As we enter תקופת ניסן and approach זמן חרותינו, we enter a transitional phase of our national freedom. Last week, we celebrated a small victory, but even as “ליהודים היתה אורה,” there was still an element of “אכתי עבדי אחשורוש.” In less than a month, we will be celebrating Passover, a celebration of our true freedom from slavery, when we left עול פרעה for good. It is curious that on פורים, there is an ענין of “עד דלא ידע,” yet on פסח, we are limited in our main סעודת פסח to just 4 cups. I think we can learn from this that the “freedom” of being able to drink as much as we want on Purim is not true freedom- we are only true בני חורין when we can look temptation in the face and refuse, where we can sit down at a table and tell the entire story of the חג with food in front of us without touching any of it, and limiting ourselves to 4 cups of wine spread out throughout the entire meal when we could easily get completely wasted. This is true freedom- the freedom to exercise self-control and connect to G-d without getting ourselves dangerously drunk in the process.

With Hashem’s help, we will get to a point where “אין שמחה אלא בשר ויין” will not be a necessity and where most of the Jewish People will focus on the more united aspects of Purim instead of עד דלא ידע, so that we can continue to be בני חורין, an עם חופשי בארצינו, and an עם קשה עורף- looking temptation in the face and stubbornly refusing it, being a strong-spirited people instead of people strong on spirits.

Shabbat Shalom