One of the first things I learned living here is that words like ‘no’ and ‘ein ma la’asot’ (there’s nothing that can be done) are often less a statement of fact, and more a test of your commitment. It would have been impossible to get to year 1 of statehood, let alone year 67, if we worked any differently. To maintain the dream of Zion through 2,000 years of exile requires a most fantastic stubbornness.
It’s an old habit, and we learned it from the best of them. God tells Moshe he’ll destroy the Jews and make him into a great nation. Moshe says: no.
God takes his presence out of the Jewish people.
Moshe remains with them, leaving only when God speaks to him.
God says: I’ll send an angel to lead you into the land instead of me.
Moshe says: If you’re not going, then neither are we.
Where does this incredible Jewish chutzpah come from?
God invited it Himself in chapter 32, when he told Moshe to ‘just leave Me alone, and I will destroy them.’ And he ratified this behavior in chapter 34, by acquiescing to all of Moshe’s demands, and agreeing to renew the covenant and accompany the people on their journey.
The rabbinic Midrash, as usual, makes the point live with the image they paint. When God tells Moshe that he will see his back, the Midrash explains that it is the Tefillin knot that lies on the back of the neck that he sees. God, who has been complaining about the Jews’ stiff-neckedness, is revealing specifically that exact spot to Moshe. And what is written inside these Tefillin? “And who is like Your nation, Israel, one nation in the land.”
If this is what God shows him after the sin of the golden calf, Moshe understands that he’s not the only stubborn one around here.
“Let God walk among us, for it is a stiff-necked nation.” Now, no longer a complaint, but perhaps, the reason God will walk amongst us, the reason we have continued to search Him out, to argue and negotiate with Him, the reason we have stuck together for all these years, a stiff-necked people with their stiff-necked God.