I’m at the checkout in Pick ‘n Pay and there’s a drama unfolding in the next aisle. A harried mom in the red corner, her three-year-old in the blue. He wants a chocolate bar (those sweets on the way out of a shop should be illegal). She says no. It’s a battle of wills. He tantrums; she pouts. Mom whispers that chocolate is bad for his teeth. He retorts, “I want it!”. She hisses that she’s already treated him to a bag of crisps. He squeals, “I want chocolate”. Mom’s logic is ironclad, but if I were a betting man, my money would be on the kid.
Why do parents capitulate to their children’s unreasonable demands? It’s simple. They overthink. “What if my child grows up to hate me?” “What if she needs therapy because her mom denied her simple treats?” “Is this battle worth the fight?”
Kids don’t over-scrutinize. They know what they want and they stay laser-focused on getting it. In parent v. child conflicts, like in most showdowns, whoever blinks first loses. Children have more stamina than their parents. In Jewish parlance, we call this “being davka”. Jewish mysticism calls it “Netzach”, the hard-nosed ambition to win at all costs.
Jews can be decidedly davka. Even G-d called us stiff-necked. We can nag G-d just as persistently as that kid badgering his mom in the checkout aisle. Davka is a “win at all costs” stance. If anyone obstructs your goal, you just become more davka.
Davka DNA could be good or bad. Remember the joke about the Jew who was found after a decade alone on a desert island. He had built three structures- a house and two shuls. One shul he’d use daily and the other he would never deign to enter. That’s davka. It’s why Jewish families sometimes remain fractured for generations over a benign dispute. It’s why whole religious communities refuse to interact. It’s probably why Israel still has a hung cabinet.
On the other hand, our intransigent nature is our greatest asset. Jews refuse to surrender to millennia of genocide, expulsions and evangelism. Davka. Agnostic Jews sang Ani Maamin in the gas chambers. Davka. Push us on our Judaism and we’ll push back harder than you’d ever expect.
My first Chabad posting was on Joburg’s university campuses. I’d meander through the campus wrapping Tefillin on Jewish students. Some never participated. But, when missionaries targeted those same students one Sukkot, they lined up to shake the lulav with me. Davka.
G-d’s “stiff-necked” assessment was a compliment, not a criticism. Netzach, the trait that produces our davka, is our greatest asset. We are davka, not because we’re difficult, but because we contain an immutable soul. G-d doesn’t change, and our soul is a piece of Him. All that happens when you attack our Divine-connection is that you remind us how robust it is.
We once had a diverse group of young Israelis at our dinner table. They loudly debated the validity of the Torah and the existence of a soul. The following morning, two of the most outspoken critics of Judaism were involved in a minor car accident. I happened to drive past the scene moments after the crash. Spotting me, the two self-proclaimed atheists shouted, “Rabbi, please pray for us at synagogue today!”. Davka.
Do we need antisemites to remind us to be Jewish? Do we need tragedy to arouse us to pray? Refusenik Jews seemed to have been more committed to tradition while behind the Iron Curtain than they are in the Holy Land. No adversity seems to mean no davka-pushback.
Then again, we can even defy that axiom. Do you think we only react strongly to adversity? Think again. We’ve got enough personal spiritual roadblocks to stimulate our davka impulses.
Is there a mitzvah that you’ve always thought was too much for you? Got a habit that you’re convinced you could never overcome? Don’t overthink it. Fear of failure is the most paralysing human trait. Just do it. Yes, that very mitzvah that you’ve always said you could never undertake.