Show Some Backbone
Translated by Rafaella Levine
Do you know anyone who can be immovable in their resolve, getting what they want by hook or by crook? Someone who doesn’t know the definition of the word “compromise,” but who will sacrifice whatever is in the way of the goal? This is someone who sticks to his values, lives by his creed, and doesn’t back down.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
Let’s look at some examples in the Chumash of people sporting this trait.
Pharaoh epitomized inflexibility. To the extent that thousands of Eqyptians were killed in the plagues and still he remained firm.
He did not turn back when the rivers turned to blood, when his home was infested by frogs; he wasn’t impressed by the lice infestation that drove them mad, nor did the wild animal stampede shake him; he survived the cattle plague and the boils, ignored the humongous hail stones, and turned a blind eye to the locusts that finished off the last of the Egyptian crops; he lived six days in utter blackness, unruffled, and may even have fallen asleep peacefully on the night of the last onslaught, the Death of the Firstborn. When all the Egyptian firstborns were dying, and he realized that he was next in line and he has a very short time left to live, he gave in and let the Jews leave. However, immediately afterwards he had a change of heart and gathered the remainder of his army to pursue the runaway slaves. Even in the face of witnessing the miraculous splitting of the sea, he did not hesitate, but rushed in after them.
A hairsbreadth divides positive determination and stubborn stupidity. We are commanded to be inflexible in certain cases, too. “Perhaps you will say in your heart, ‘These nations are more numerous than I; how will I be able to drive them out?’ Do not fear them!” (Deuteronomy 7:17-18).
In contrast, when the Almighty punished the Jews at the time of the Golden Calf, He called them “A stiff-necked people” (ibid 9:13), and this was not a term of endearment.
Where do we cross the boundary? When is it bullheadedness, and when determination?
Well, it depends what the argument’s about.
Many things are not worth sticking to your guns about. Even if you get your way, what did it take? Was it worth the argument? Are their torn relationships now as a result? The end often does not justify the means.
On the other hand, some things definitely are worth sticking to. A mitzvah would be a good example. Historically, Jews have even risked their lives to live a Torah lifestyle. The Midrash (Mechilta, Yitro) paints the image of the Jews in Israel in the time of the Hadrianic persecutions, lovingly paying for the commandments with their lives.
As has been said so aptly, is this the hill I wish to die upon? Is it worth it?
Sacrificing for a mitzvah is worth it, as all our hard work becomes part of the mitzvah, endearing it more in the eyes of the Almighty, and connecting us more strongly to Him.
When the Nazis took over Hungary, they announced that within a number of hours, every Jew in a certain city had to gather their belongings and transfer to the cramped ghetto. The order, accompanied by threats, hit them like a bolt of lightning. Everyone began to pack quickly, and head towards the ghetto.
One of the city’s Jews met an elderly man, crying. When asked, the man explained that his father had just passed away, and there was no one to arrange a proper burial. The Jew took the mourner by the arm and made his way to the Gestapo command center. There he asked to meet with the commanding officer. The office smelled of the fear of death. The elderly Jew explained his predicament, and the officer responded with apathy.
“And what do you want?” the officer asked the younger Jew. The man affirmed that he was a stranger, but that seeing this man’s predicament he had felt the need to help.
“Did you not hear the order to evacuate to the ghetto?” he asked.
The man replied that he had.
“And instead of packing your belongings, you run around wasting time?”
The man replied, “Is a human being worse than a dog? If you had found a dead dog in the street, wouldn’t you take a minute to contact the authorities to bury it?”
The officer was taken aback by the man’s steely resolve, and gave an order to allow the burial. The two managed to hastily perform the burial that day.
This story testifies to the proper place for determination. When used for the right ideals, we are aligning ourselves with the will of the Almighty, helping to make the world brighter, one step at a time.