Stubbornness—like many human traits—can either work for you or against you. When we think of the Jews who survived atrocious circumstances in the Holocaust, for example, we describe them as tenacious, determined, spirited or purpose-driven. On the other hand, we have examples of leaders who were led by evil intentions and refused to bend or be flexible. Pharaoh is the Torah’s primary example of such a leader. Despite witnessing God’s signs, wonders and various plagues in Egypt, he kept acting in a manner doggedly determined to subjugate and destroy the Jewish nation. There are no less than eight references in this week’s parsha alone, as to how stubborn and hard-hearted he was. What makes stubbornness—in one instance—appear as resilience, while—in another instance—it appears as foolishness?
Rabbi Berel Wein noted that Pharaoh was not convinced of the power or rectitude of the God of Israel. He, therefore, pursued his stubborn course bitterly and unnecessarily—with his plans ending in the deep waters of the Red Sea. Pharaoh, thus, becomes the paradigm for all those tyrants and megalomaniacs, who have followed him throughout the centuries. The past century, especially, has spawned this breed of cruel stubbornness. From the Kaiser to Hitler, from Lenin and Stalin to Chairman Mao, from the Grand Mufti to Sadaam Hussein and Yassir Arafat—the imitators of Pharaoh are clear for all to see. Stubbornness in the name of evil—in the cause of conquest and hatred of others—is a very negative and dangerous trait. It destroys many innocent people, but—eventually—it destroys the stubborn person, as well.
The Talmud in Sanhedrin (71a and 89a) discusses two instances where stubbornness leads to a bad ending. There is the stubborn and rebellious son (ben sorer u’morer) mentioned in the Torah. This son will not listen to reason and refuses to correct his incorrigible behavior. The Torah also mentions the rebellious elder—the Jewish sage who is so sure he is correct—that he will not accede to the majority opinion, and insists on having the community follow his ill-advised decrees to everyone’s detriment. In both instances, the individuals are arrogantly stubborn—one in his wickedness and one in his righteousness. The Torah condemns them both.
Stubbornness can be analogous to a tree fighting the winds in a storm. There are two types of trees, however. There is the banyan tree that is inflexible and will not bend. If the wind blows hard enough, this tree will—eventually—break. Then, there is the palm tree. The palm tree is able to bend almost all the way down, and still snap back into the upright position. When Hurricanes visited Florida in the past, many banyan trees were uprooted. However, the palm trees mostly survived.
King David understood this principle in psalms 92, when he wrote that:“The righteous will flourish like a palm tree … ” A palm tree can almost bend in half during a storm and, then, will flex back up afterwards. King David was a wise leader who—unlike Pharaoh—understood that there are times when we need to be determined, but there are also times when we need to be flexible.
May Hashem grant us the ability to be tenacious and determined, when it comes to living a morally correct Torah-true life. May we also have the wisdom to be flexible and flourish like a palm tree, knowing where to adapt, when necessary.
Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg is a forensic, clinical psychologist and a member of the American Psychology-Law Society. He is past president of the Chai Riders Motorcycle Club of NY/NJ. He is the coordinator of Bikur Cholim/Chesed at Congregation Torah Ohr in Boca Raton, Florida. He can be reached at [email protected].