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Post #23 (Ki Tisa): A stiff-necked people? “What are your weaknesses”?

“It gives me great pleasure indeed to see the stubbornness of an incorrigible nonconformist warmly acclaimed.” -- Albert Einstein

“And Moses hastened, bowed his head to the ground and prostrated himself, and said: "If I have now found favor in Your sight, O Lord, let the Lord dwell among us for it is [כי] a stiff-necked people, pardon our sins and errors and keep us as your own” Exodus 34:8–9.

In the wake of the Israelites' sin of the golden calf, Moses perseveres in his efforts to obtain God's forgiveness and seeks to restore God’s intimate connection with the new Israelite nation in their desert journey. Markedly, Moses acknowledges the Israelites' being a 'stiff-necked' people, a description already used derisively by G-d to describe their character ("I will not go up among you; for thou art a stiff-necked people; lest I consume thee in the way"[1]). Multiple commentaries of Exodus 34:9 turn on the translation of the Hebrew word ki (כי), cited above as “for it is” [a stiff-necked people].

Surprisingly, whereas some commentators view Moses's request as asking for forgiveness despite their being stiff-necked, it has also been considered paradoxically, through an alternative translation, because they are stiff-necked. Thus Moses seems to cite this seeming failing as the justification to forgive the Israelites. Indeed, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks [2], in his reading of this passage, based on a midrash, suggests that Moses maintained that the very trait of stiff-necked obstinance that failed the Israelites in the current situation would, in generations to come, exemplify the very source of their ultimate loyalty to God.[3] This loyalty would be manifest even in giving their lives to avoid renouncing their faith. Thus, Moses took the long view, highlighting the value of a seeming weakness (stiff-neckedness) and reframing it as a quality destined to be a strength in different contexts and in future generations.


"Tell me about your strengths/weaknesses…"

A dreaded interview question. Preparing for job interviews, we anticipate employer questions, such as the tiresome "What are your strengths/What are your weaknesses?" question. The temptation is to get through the weakness question or those resembling it by admitting, "I'm a perfectionist [or a workaholic]; I never submit an assignment until it's complete in all aspects." [Please, don’t try this response at home, given its universal derision].

Indeed, most strengths and weaknesses can comprise two sides of the same coin, depending on the circumstances and extent. One can feasibly be too calm, too generous, and too agreeable. One can also derive benefits from qualities that are usually perceived as weaknesses in the workplace: obstinance can express itself as perseverance ("how about we finish this before we leave today"), disorganization often comes with creativity (thinking out of the box), and negativity can be an asset when the situation calls for being realistic (reflecting a "yes, but..." approach, anticipating all the risks by touching all the bases ). You can acknowledge being pedantic but also indicate that "this quality draws others to recruit me for their team." For another "weakness," you can "admit" to not being a very good multitasker, as you prefer to give your full concentration to one project at a time. It would be particularly helpful to describe how you’ve taken steps to overcome the weakness you shared, such as improving your time management skills or applying other compensatory strategies. For a list of more trait opposites, see Kerpen.[4]

The catch is that few of us are fully mindful of our strengths and weaknesses. An excellent place to start for enhancing awareness of your strengths is to take the VIA Survey of Character Strengths ( or, which offers immediate feedback.

A second interview tool is to recall how your work colleagues view you: When do they usually turn to you for your input? Do they seek you out when they need a proofreader, a party organizer, someone to stand up to management, provide a good joke, or record meeting protocols? Interviewees may feel awkward recounting their strengths in job interviews due to their discomfort in violating their genuine modesty. As we have noted, though, this is not the time for modesty. Nonetheless,, your response becomes much more palatable (and likely more credible) by saying: "Well, when my colleagues need someone to ___­­_____, they mostly turn to me."[5] These and other tools can not only enhance your awareness of strengths; they can also help you consider how traits you have viewed as weaknesses can, in the right circumstances, be a resource for yourself and the workplace. Wouldn't you turn to a pedantic colleague to proofread your work report?

Career Tips:

  • Knowing your strengths can become an invaluable resource in life and certainly at work. Exercising these strengths can boost your efforts in many life domains. For instance, if you become aware that your key strength is 'leadership,' you may now identify many areas where you can take the lead in a group project or where others seem to be waiting for someone to structure the task. If one of your strengths is 'zest,' you might be the one to inject some enthusiasm into a project which has been met with indifference.[6]

  • In job search résumés and interviews, it's not enough to list your strengths; anyone can repeat the qualities that appeared in the job description. Your job is to think of actual situations where you applied your key strengths. This is typically what employers are looking for in competency-based interviews. Your desirable qualities can best be illustrated through stories, such as by adopting the CAR (Challenge [or Context]–Action–Result) approach.[7][8] In CAR stories, the challenge is the problem or situation that needed solving, and the action is what you did to contribute to the solution using one or more of your strengths. The result reflects how you affected the outcome of your story (the resolution of the problem). People (and that includes interviewers) remember stories because they have a 'narrative cluster' (including a beginning, middle, and end) and usually have an emotional pull. Weaving your strengths into these stories can positively impact your job prospects.

  • A CAR response example for the question "Tell me when you had to deliver results under pressure": Challenge: "One of the sales divisions at my former firm had been seeing declining sales, so I was called in to help turn things around. My task was to lead the team so they could surpass their sales goals." Action: "Over a six-month period, I implemented some new strategies with the team, including establishing clear and measurable sales targets for each team member and instituting weekly sales meetings for the group and for each team member. I also established a sales consultation seminar." Result: "The end result was that we increased sales by 40%, exceeded sales targets by 20% in the first quarter, and maintained the upward trajectory throughout the year.."

  • Try this: Remember! Your CAR stories should be formulated in brief form--6-7 sentences should suffice. Also, make sure to prepare and rehearse the night before your interview.

[1] Exodus 33:3. [2] Sacks, J. (2010). Covenant and conversation: Exodus—The book of redemption. Maggid Books and The Orthodox Union. [3] The Midrash Raba (11th or 12th century; Exodus, Section 42) drives this point home in a homiletic depiction of Moses's confrontation with God: "Rabbi Yitzhak bar Radifa in the name of Rabbi Amay: You think that [this quality] is to be censured, but it really is to their merit, when the time will come for them to choose to retain their Jewishness or be impaled." [4] Kerpen, D. (2013). How to turn your weaknesses into strengths. [5] Even though a job interview is not the time to be humble, citing how others see you acknowledges the merit of this verse from the Book of Proverbs: “Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth; an outsider, and not your own lips” (Proverbs 27:2).

[6] Littman-Ovadia, H., Lazar-Butbul, V., & Benjamin, B. A. (2014). Strengths-based career counseling: Overview and initial evaluation. Journal of Career Assessment, 22(3), 403–419. [7]Hemming, A. (n.d.). The C.A.R. technique: Your secret interviewing weapon. [8]Shoberg, C., & Whittenberger, A. (n.d.). STAR, CAR, SOAR: What does it all mean???


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