Chazal (Sanhedrin 104a) tell us of the time that Jews were taken captive on Har Carmel, and their captor was walking behind them. One Jew said to the other, “The camel walking in front of us is blind in one eye and is laden with two flasks, one of wine and the other of oil. And of the two men leading it, one is a Jew and the other a gentile.”
Their captor overheard the remark and said to them, “Stiff-necked people, from where do you know this?”
The two Jews gave a detailed reply. They explained that the fact that the camel ate the grass only on one side indicated that it was unable to see the grass on the other side. Since the contents of one flask dripped on the ground and remained on the surface, they inferred that this flask contained oil. The liquid in the other flask dripped onto the earth and was absorbed, which was an indication that that flask contained wine.
Their captor chased after the camel, and found that it was precisely as the captives had stated. He then kissed the Jews on their heads, brought them to his house, made them a great feast, and danced before them, saying, “Blessed is He Who chose the descendants of Avraham and gave them of His wisdom. Wherever they go they become the princes of their masters!” The captor freed the Jews, and they returned home in peace.
The meforshim wonder why the captor, after hearing the comment made by his Jewish captives, called them a “stiff-necked people.” Granted, the remark revealed their wisdom, but how did it prove their stubbornness?
In his sefer Aish Kodesh, written in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust, Harav Kalonymous Kalmish Shapira, the Piaseczner Rebbe, Hy”d, gives a powerful and relevant explanation to this Chazal and connects it to our parashah.
Like virtually all attributes, stubbornness can be a negative trait when misused. When it is used appropriately, being stiff-necked is a most lofty middah.
At a time of great challenge, when a person manages to continue to do mitzvos and serve Hashem with his hands, feet and lips, it is a madreigah in itself. But when an individual manages to use his mind and intellect to learn Torah despite the challenges and obstacles he faces, that is a most lofty level of a very positive trait of stubbornness.
An angel does not have the ability to descend to this temporal world and emerge spiritually unscathed. Inevitably, he is adversely affected, and must go through a cleansing process before he can return to Shamayim.
In contrast, the neshamah of a Yid has the ability to be in this physical world, face seemingly insurmountable challenges, and remain so impervious to his surroundings that he can even use his intellect to serve Hashem!
The only One Who is never affected by circumstances is Hakadosh Baruch Hu. Thus, through cleaving to Hashem, we can rise above the circumstances we face, regardless of how daunting they may be.
The captor was in awe of the fact that the Jews, even as they were being led away in captivity, were still able to focus on using their wisdom.
This “stubbornness” was possible because they were continuing to serve Hashem with their intellect through bonding with Him, and this bond in turn was the key to their salvation.
The Torah teaches us this week that “Noach walked with Hashem” (Bereishis 6:9).
Rashi notes that “regarding Avraham it says ‘Walk before Me.’ Noach needed support to bear him up, but Avraham Avinu would strengthen himself and walk in his righteousness on his own.”
Noach experienced intense persecution and suffering from the wicked members of his generation, and needed hischazkus, support from Above, to bear him up so that he could continue to serve Hashem despite the circumstances.
Avraham Avinu, too, faced incredibly challenging nisyonos, including being hurled into a fiery furnace on the orders of Nimrod.
While we have no inkling of the greatness of Noach, there was a difference between him and Avraham Avinu.
Noach needed chizuk, but Avraham Avinu was able to be mechazek himself. For he was able to rise above the challenges he faced and not allow the dire circumstances to affect him.
Each of us has within us the ability to fortify our connection with Hakadosh Baruch Hu and use it as a steady anchor that will prove to be stronger than the most powerful waves. It takes much courage and fortitude, it takes willpower and patience, but the results are most rewarding.
Tonight, the fourth of Cheshvan, is the yahrtzeit of the Piaseczner Rebbe, Hy”d, a Torah giant who managed to rise above some of the most dreadful conditions. Despite his own terrible losses and heart-wrenching anguish, he continued to relate and write divrei Torah.
In his last will, he pleads with every member of Klal Yisrael to learn from his sefarim, and assures that the merit of his lofty ancestors — which include the Rebbe, Harav Elimelech of Lizhensk, the Kozhnitzer Maggid, and many other tzaddikim — will be a merit for the person learning his sefarim and his family in this world and the world to come.
May his memory be a blessing for all of Klal Yisrael.