Behold We are a Stiff-Necked People

Erev Rosh HaShanah 5780

“Welcome to Elberta Michigan, First Settlers John and Caroline Greenwood 1855.”

This summer, I went on a 2 week bike trip with a number of high school students, from Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute, the URJ Summer camp in Wisconsin. For two weeks we cycled around the Northern half of Lake Michigan, through Wisconsin, and the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan. We cycled along the picturesque coast, through farmland, and small tourist towns.

As we entered each town, there were always the small signs on the side of the road welcoming you to the town; they name the town and honor some individual or group. “Welcome to Charlevoix, Home of the 1992 Boys Cross Country State Champions”. “Welcome to Ludington, Home of the SS Badger”.

When you are riding around on a bicycle entering all sorts of small towns, you have extra time to notice the signs, time to wonder: why is this the thing the town chose to honor? Who were these people?

One of these signs jumped out this summer. It read, “Welcome to Elberta Michigan. First Settlers John and Caroline Greenwood 1855.”

Elberta is like many of the small town we cycled through. With Lake Michigan on one side and Betsie River on the other, it is a beautiful community full of summer homes and vacation rentals. A small main street has coffee shops and ice cream stores, and the same chain souvenir shops you see in every tourist town around the lake.

The moment we cycled past the sign welcoming us to Elberta, the teenager next to me turned and matter-of-factly stated, “That isn’t true”

“How do you know that isn’t true,” I asked, “Are you suddenly an expert on Elberta? A place you have never before visited?”

“It can’t possibly be true,” she retorted, “The Native Americans lived here for generations before 1855.”

She was, of course, correct. The People of the Council of Three Fires had settled all along the Eastern Coast of Lake Michigan far before 1855.

We all know the truth that this teenager knew. Yet, the narrative we preserve tells a different story.

Just a few days after returning from Elberta. I took a second trip, down to Montgomery, Alabama. I walked along the streets past coffee shops, bar-b-que restaurants and museums. Montgomery, also has historic markers, notably one at Court Square. The markers tells of the history of the square, the buildings that were built around the fountain at its center and the events that have happened there just steps from the State House.

“Two small villages,” it reads, “New Philadelphia, founded by Massachusetts lawyer Andrew Dexter in 1817, and East Alabama, established by Georgians led by John Scott in 1818, united in 1819 to form Montgomery, named for Revolutionary War hero General Richard Montgomery. Connecting at Court Square…The first courthouse stood to west of artesian well which the city enlarged in the 1850s. The Fountain was erected in 1885. It was a historic hub for business in Montgomery.” It goes on to tell about the hotel, bank, and telegraph office which ringed the square.

The story that marker tells is one of a busy, modern city, full of commerce and construction, the site of political and economic activity. It tells a specific narrative about the city of Montgomery, and it leaves out others as well. The sign says that the square was a “historic hub for business”.

“What kind of business?” one might wonder.

Court Square was once the site of one of the largest slave markets in the American South. A place where hundreds of thousands of human beings were sold as property. Africans kidnapped from their homes, brought on a treacherous journey across the Atlantic, and sold into servitude. It was here that human beings were brought up to auction and sold as property to the highest bidder.

The fountain was built on top of the auction block. All the buildings on the northside of Commerce street were slave warehouses. Up the street stands the First Capital of the Confederacy. On one corner of the square is the bus stop where Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat. And just up the street is the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church were Dr. King preached.

The historic marker on the site makes no mention of this Montgomery. These human beings are simply not part of the story.

Why do cities tell certain stories? Why do they construct narratives around themselves? Why does Elberta teach about John and Caroline Greenwood? Why does Montgomery erase half its history?

The answers are complicated and challenging. Our society builds all sorts of cultural narratives, myths, and stories around itself. We retell these in our history books and schools, on our signposts and monuments.

We constantly reinforce these stories. Our entire culture has been built around these narratives, around these myths. Our institutions and our institutional structures rest on a foundation constructed on and wrapped up in this culture.

I did not build these narratives. You did not constructive these institutions. We did not erect these monuments. They have been built up around us for generations. We have been born into these narratives, at times we have been the beneficiaries of them, and at times we have suffered because of them.

Yet, we have an opportunity to work to deconstruct them.

The Israelite were enslaved people in Egypt for 430 years. During those centuries, the Israelites were taught a narrative of the world they lived in. Over the course of many generations, the Israelites’ own culture, the culture brought down to Egypt by their ancestors, was slowly lost and they adopted the culture of Egypt, a culture which prayed to idols and had many different gods.

When the Israelites were freed, they were not able to immediately give up on the Egyptian narratives that they had adopted, that they had constructed around themselves. For many generations they had accepted and been part of the Egyptian culture, and they were not able to immediately let go of its idols and gods. Even though they witnessed miracles, 10 plagues, and the splitting of the Sea, they were not able to immediately accept a world without the institution of idols and gods.

The Israelites tried to change their ways. They followed Moses into the desert, they behaved in the ways they were instructed. But when Moses went up to Mt Sinai, leaving the Israelites alone for weeks, they reverted to their old behaviors. They built an idol, the Golden Calf, and they began worshiping it.

In seeing this happen, God proclaimed, “I see that this is a stiffnecked people…” “am qasheh oreph” (Exodus 32:9) This is a people who are unable to turn away from their previous ways. They can not give up on the past. They can not move forward. They can not learn.

“am qasheh oreph” – behold this is a stiffnecked people

The Israelites are called stiff necked 6 times in the Torah. Four times in connection with The Golden Calf, and twice as the Israelites prepare to enter the promised land. (Deuteronomy 9)

“am qasheh oreph” – behold this is a stiffnecked people

Qasheh means severe, hard, heavy, impudent, obstinate, and stubborn.

Oreph refers to the back of the neck, the spine.

To be qasheh oreph, is to be stiff necked, is to be so obstinate, so opinionated, so set in our ways, that we are unable to change.

To be qasheh oreph, is to have a neck that can not turn, a neck that looks only in one direction and is unable to see other perspectives, to see other narratives, to see other options.

Am qasheh oreph, a stiff necked people, is an am, an entire community of people.

In order for an entire nation to be stiff-necked, it needs to be made up of stiff-necked individuals. The entire community is a stiff necked and each individual people is a stiff necked person.

Our Israelite ancestors were not the only ones to be part of an am qasheh oreph.

The stubbornness that our American culture clings to, holding on to narratives, myths, and stories. Narrative which tell half truths. Stories that are blind to the contributions of entire groups of people. Myths that silence dissenting voices. Our American culture can be described as stiff necked.

We may want to change the institutions which are broken and erase the narratives of whole communities of people. We may want to address the entrenched stubbornness of the culture and the community and the institutions in which we live. Yet, before we can do that, we must look at ourselves and address our own inability to change.

There is a story about Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, the Chafetz Chaim, an early 20th century Rabbi in Poland. He saw the world around him was broken and in pain, so he decided to work to improve the world. “I set out to change the world,” he wrote, “but I failed.” He was not able to be successful in his quest to change the world.

“So I decided to scale back my efforts,” he continued “and only try to influence the Jewish community of Poland, but I failed there, too.” Even the community of Poland was too stiff-necked to change.

“So I targeted the community in my hometown, but achieved no success. Then I gave all my efforts to changing my own family, and failed at that as well “ The world, Poland, his local community, even his own family was stiff-necked, unbending, unable to change.

“Finally,” he finishes his story, “I decided to change myself, and that’s how I had such an impact on the world.”

Am qasheh oreph, a stiff necked people, is an entire community of people who are each individual person stiff necked.

We can not begin by changing the entire nation. First we need to change each individual person, and we must start by changing ourselves.

That is what each of us has the opportunity to do this High Holiday season, we can decide to change ourselves.

We live in a deeply broken world, a world filled with violence and pain, a world filled with strife and derision. We live in a world built on the suffering of others, where other peoples stories are corrupted. Ours is a world which erases the narratives of entire groups of people from the cultural conversations, a world which diminishes the impact of individuals, and a world where the instruments of power, the institutions and the culture, reinforce these behaviors.

As Rabbi Kagan teaches, we should try to fix these deep chasms of brokenness, to change our culture, our institutions and their narratives. However, we won’t be able to fix the brokenness of the world, of our own country, of our own state, our city or our community, until we have worked to fix the brokenness in our own lives.

We must stand here today and say that we are not so arrogant and stiff necked as to say, we are perfect and have not sinned, rather we say we have sinned we have transgressed.

We acknowledge our stiff necked nature, our arrogance and our obstinance, our inability to change. That is what this time, the High Holiday Season is all about. We have an opportunity to take the time to look deep inside our own lives, to consider ourselves, how we are broken and how we can work to correct that brokenness.

Each of us has experiences where we are stiff-necked, where we are stuck in our ways and we need to work to change.

We share stories that we know are not true

We are blind to the contributions of others

We silence diverse opinions.

We share stories that we know are not true

Many of us are familiar with the old aphorism about the destructive powers of sharing rumors and gossip: the pillow feathers scattered to the wind.

A Rabbi has a student who often repeats stories that are not true, who spreads gossip. In order to teach this student the destructive power of sharing these stories, the Rabbi instructs the student to bring a feather pillow to the top of a hill. There they cut the pillow open and allow all the feathers to be swept away by the strong gusts of wind. The Rabbi then instructs the student to go and collect all the feathers. The student remarks that this is impossible: the feathers have scattered in every direction and have been swept near and far, up into the trees and down into the valley. The Rabbi responds, “This is like your stories: they go every which way and they can not be brought back into the pillow.”

We know this story or similar ones. However, this does not stop us from repeating stories that we know are not true. We listen when others share gossip about our family, our friends, and our coworkers. We don’t stop these stories from being told and then we repeat them, sharing them with others.

We need to change our behavior.

Instead of sharing stories we know are not true, or sharing stories are not entirely sure are true, we need to rethink the stories we tell to others.

Each of us can take a moment to think, to ask ourselves: is this story factual? Am I embellishing it for dramatic effect? Is there a way to tell this story in a more truthful fashion? Do I need to be telling it at all?

We can take a moment to ask ourselves these questions, before we start talking, before we start sharing stories. It is our way of keeping the feathers inside the pillowcase.

We are blind to the contributions of others.

Strunk and White, APA, MLA, Chicago Style: we are taught to cite our work beginning in elementary school; that if we use a source, either in a direct quote, paraphrase, or it’s content, we need to make sure that it is attributed; that the source is referenced and receives credit.

We learn this because the entirety of the work is not our own. Citing sources allows others to see the background information, to track down opportunities for further learning. Most importantly, however, giving proper credit acknowledges the ideas and contributions of others.

We are taught this in school. However, we don’t always follow through with it in life.

Many of us work in collaboration with others, partnering with others on projects, tasks, and events. However, when the task has ended and it is time to present a finished product, when the work is complete and the event is happening, we can forget to acknowledge all the parties who were involved in making it a reality. We forget to cite our sources.

Sometimes we are the people who toil in the background. We worked hard to help finish a job, to complete a project, to put together an event, and it is our work that is forgotten. Other people take credit for the entirety of the work, forgetting our contributions. And other times, we are the ones who ignore the other people who worked hard to complete the work, to make the event successful. We forget about their contributions.

We need to remember to cite our sources, to acknowledge all of those whose work went into creating a finished product.

To name and address each individual, people who toiled in the background and do not get recognition. To name and thank those whose work our own work was built on. To address the people who might be forgotten, to cite our sources.

We silence diverse opinions.

It is incredibly easy to build a silo around yourself, to surround yourself only with people who agree with you, to mute, unfollow, and unfriends people on social media who might disagree with your perspective, with your view of the world. We can walk away from people who express a different opinion.

As our world becomes more stratified, as opinions become more segregated and isolated, as we enter into our own worlds without divergent different opinions, it becomes easier and easier to continue to reinforce our own beliefs by only surrounding ourselves with people who agree with us.

We could use diverse opinions to challenge our preconceived notions, to further refine our own values and beliefs. It is far easier to instead, to simply dismiss different opinions.

How can we open ourselves up to hearing from people who disagree with us, who have different opinions? We can recognize the humanity in each person, even those who disagree with us. We can work to understand the perspectives and life experiences which have created a difference of opinion. We can acknowledge that healthy disagreements can lead us to better understand ourselves.

We mute, unfollow, and unfriends people who disagree with us, instead we can listen to all those around us.

Instead of repeating these behaviors this year, we have an opportunity to change.

Instead of sharing stories that we know aren’t true, we can change.

Changing means keeping the feathers in the pillow.

It means not seeking out gossip.

It means asking ourselves, is this a story I need to tell.

Instead of remaining blind to the contributions of others, we can change.

Changing means citing our sources

It means acknowledging those who toiled in the background

It means naming those whose work our own work was built on

Instead of silencing diverse opinions, we can change.

Changing means listening to all those around us

It means staying as part of the conversation

It means allowing others to share their opinions

It takes thoughtful intentional work on our behalves to make these changes to change our own behavior, to acknowledge that our necks are stiff and unbending, and through that hard work we can create more flexibility.

Each day, we have the opportunity to work to change our own behaviors and act in powerful, transformative, ways for ourselves and for the world. This moment in time, this Rosh Hashanah, this High Holiday season; let it be an opportunity for each of us to begin with ourselves and begin the process of change.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook teaches, “The order [in which teshuvah, the order in which change happens], is significant. Our individual teshuvah must precede the universal teshuvah of the community.”

First we do the personal introspective work, take a proper accounting of our own actions, take actions to change our own lives, to change our own behaviors. Only then can we take the time to look beyond ourselves as well.

Rav Kook continues, “On Rosh Hashanah our outlook broadens. We yearn for the teshuvah of the Jewish people and the ultimate repair of the entire universe… From the narrow straits of personal limitations, we progress to the wide expanses of universal perfection.”

As we think about our own opportunity to change our behaviors, we also consider how our change affect others and how it can expand to the broader universal opportunity to change.

Where do we see stiffness in our community, in our culture, in our world?

In our own actions,

When we share stories that we know are not true

When we are blind to the contributions of others

When we silence diverse opinions.

And in the actions of our world, our culture, and our institutions.

In the sign which reads, “Welcome to Elberta Michigan, First Settlers John and Caroline Greenwood 1855.”

In the monument that calls, Court Square, “a historic hub for business in Montgomery.”

Together we imagine a world in which each of us as individuals has done the work of changing ourselves. Of ridding ourselves of our stiff necks.

In that world, I ride with a group of teenagers into Elberta, Michigan and am greeted by a sign which says, “Welcome to Elberta, Michigan built on the ancestral lands of Council of the Three Fires, the Potawatomi, the Ottawa, and the Ojibwe.”

In that world, I walk into Court Square in Montgomery and see a monument which acknowledges that Court Square was the site of one of the largest slave markets in the American South, where enslaved people were bought and sold. And that Court Square was where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a public bus.

In the coming year may each of us do our part to acknowledge and correct our own stiff necked nature, so that we can build that world together.

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