Based on Naaleh.com shiur by Mrs. Shira Smiles
Channie Koplowitz Stein
After informing Moshe about the sin of the golden calf, Hashem says, "I have seen this people, and behold it is a stiff-necked people. And now leave Me, and let My anger flare up against them." Later, when Hashem agrees to let Bnei Yisrael enter the Land, He again says, "I shall not ascend among you, for you are a stiff-necked people." Finally, Moshe beseeches Hashem, "Let my Lord go among us - for it is a stiff-necked people, and You shall forgive our iniquity and our error, and make us Your heritage." From this exchange, it seems that Hashem could have forgiven Bnei Yisrael for the idol worship, but their stubbornness was unforgivable. What is it about this trait that is so evil? How could Moshe then use that trait as the very argument for Hashem to again be in their midst?
The Yalkut Yosif Lekach quotes the Saba of Kelm in explaining that man's spiritual essence is based on his ability to accept reproof. People are able to justify anything from their personal perspectives, but if someone wants to improve and grow, he must be able to admit his mistakes and accept criticism. That is why, as Ethics from Sinai notes, Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi taught that the best life path a person should choose is to love reproof, for only then can he correct his faults and achieve peace. Bnei Yisrael sinned grievously, but there is always the possibility of teshuvah. However, when one is stubborn and refuses to admit that he is wrong, he will not repent.
What does the phrase "stiff-necked" actually mean? Rabbi Schwadron explains that it means that you have turned away from someone or something and refuse to look back. This is what Bnei Yisrael did to Chur when he tried to prevent them from making the idol. Instead of admitting their mistake, they killed him. This obstinacy would have sealed our fate had not Moshe intervened on our behalf. But even later in history, Yirmiya tells us why Hashem has chosen to destroy the Beit Hamikdash and exile us. "It is because you [Bnei Yisrael] said 'I have not sinned.' " We hadn't learned, even after all the years.
Admitting, "I was wrong," and meaning it is much more powerful than saying, "I'm sorry," which doesn't pinpoint the problem and therefore doesn't lead to improvement. If you constantly justify your actions, you simply cannot improve. A particular wrong action is fairly easy to correct, but a character trait, such as stubbornness, is much harder to uproot. The Chochmat Hamatzpun, citing Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, posits that when one sins, one has used his free choice and chosen poorly, but he can then choose to change. On the other hand, a negative character trait, especially stubbornness, corrupts one's essence. Rashi notes this character trait in an even earlier incident with Bnei Yisrael. They had just witnessed the splitting of the sea and so many other miracles. Yet immediately after they arrived at Marah, they approached Moshe with chutzpah, demanding water. This attitude reflected the negative trait of "stiff-necked" and an inability to change. Seeing miracles is meaningless unless it becomes a vehicle for change.
Rav Yechezkel Levenstein explains that obstinacy is a result of arrogance and ego. It is the refusal to accept another's perspective. Stubborn people won't even accept actual evidence placed before them if it will disprove what they believe. They will never believe that any criticism is directed at them; it is always directed at someone else. Therefore notes the Tiv Hatorah, they will never change and do teshuvah.
The Shaarei Derech points out that whether stubbornness is good or bad depends on how the person uses it. The Aish Kodesh advises parents and teachers to train a stubborn child to use that stubbornness toward Hashem's service, to insist on davening properly and to learn Torah with tremendous diligence. Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, citing Rav Dessler, notes that tefillah, prayer, is an excellent tool for countering the stubborn streak.
In the first part of Hashem's dialogue with Moshe, Hashem tells Moshe to leave Him alone although Moshe had not yet said anything. Thus, Hashem hinted to Moshe to pray for Bnei Yisrael. Tefillah is a form of submission to Hashem. Davening out loud and articulating one's thoughts are particularly effective as they open us up to feelings of dependency and receiving from Hashem. Through prayer we articulate, "I am not perfect, I am in need, and I make mistakes."
It is this refusal to bend in spite of circumstances and "proof" that has allowed Bnei Yisrael to survive and cling to its religion throughout the Diaspora. This obstinacy is the hallmark and strength of the Jew. As the Aish Kodesh writes, in times of great challenge one needs to remain stubborn in one's faith. And this was Moshe's argument. "Hashem," Moshe said, "We will use this very characteristic to survive as Your people."