Eikev A Stiff Necked People


By Ralph Sinick

Summary of the parshah. I think of Eikev as containing three main parts.

  1. Eikev begins like a prototype for other prophesies:with glorious promises “if you obey these rules and observe them” . . . and dire warnings if you break the commandments.

The first section also stresses the importance of gratitude. God is giving Israel a rich and bountiful land:  gratitude is the best response, including thanking God after meals

  1. The middle section, which we read today.
  2. Warning against self-righteousness, arrogance:
    “Know, then, that it is not for any virtue of yours that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess; for you are a stiff-necked people. ” (9:6)
  3. Warning against idolatry which leads to Golden Calf narrative
  4. Main theme of the last part of Eikev is how to live: “what does the lord your god demand of you?”
    Love God, keep his commandments, help the widow, orphan, and stranger
    Along these lines, the second passage after the Shema comes from near the end of EIkev

 

Our questions:

What does it mean to be stiff-necked (קְשֵׁה־ עֹ֖רֶף)?  What is its meaning  in the Torah, at that time, and for us today? Why does god characterize us by our necks?

Pshat:  we resist guidance.

Vivid example from Biblical times:

As a farmer guides his ox and uses a pole to prick the ox’s neck to turn or keep a straight course, so God guides his people. Stiff-necked then means that the people are stubborn, unresponsive, resisting guidance. This example also gives a visceral understanding of  the word ערף, which means neck or back of neck.

Now let’s look at the term stiff-necked in our world and how it might apply to us.

  1. Physical
    a) A stiff neck is usually caused by a strain due to exertion, bad posture, or an injury. It is often associated with pain.

b Key role of neck
“Your neck is the vital connecting corridor between the most important parts of your body, your head and your torso. These are two parts of you that are absolutely necessary for you to survive as a living human being.

A surgeon will tell you that there are as many distinct structures in your neck as in all the rest of your body. Air, food, nerve pathways and life-sustaining fluids such as blood and lymph have to pass through this narrow region of your body. And because the structures of your neck are packed so closely together, they require an absolute minimum of excess tension to function at their best.  .  .”
And learning how to release undue tension in our necks is one of the best things we can do to improve our overall functioning.” (Robert Rickover, A “Stiffnecked People”)

 

  1. c) Hard to turn head — affects behavior: grumpy, rigidity. For example if we are driving, we will try to get by using the rear-view mirrors — we might miss the “blind spot” next to our car.

 

  1. Behavior

So being physically stiff-necked leads to stiff-necked behaviors:  unyielding/ fixed mindset / rigid / stubborn

We can all fall into stiff-necked thinking. For example, Mira and I had a plan to go to Mt. Lassen this past week. We had a reservation and had done various preparations, including digging out our sleeping bags and our old camp stove. Then we learned about the fires in Redding, not so far from Lassen.  We didn’t want to hear this news and made the trip anyway, for better or worse.

 

A last comment on God’s behavior:  Is God (as depicted in Torah) stiff-necked? Often we are angriest when we see our own flaws in others . . .  perhaps that’s why God angrily call his people “stiff-necked”.

 

III. Philosophy/religion

  1. a) neck as a narrow place (Egypt), bottle neck
    Not being stiff-necked suggests looking at the big picture vs narrow interests

 

  1. b) What is the opposite of stiff-necked? being able to turn and seek redemption
    Being able to turn is seen as of utmost importance:

— Moses turned aside to see the burning bush
— In Eikev, God tells Moses to turn and go to his people in the Golden Calf incident, to set them back on the right path.

Also, being open-hearted stands in opposition to being stiff-necked:  help the widow, orphan, and stranger

 

  1. c) Is stiff-necked always bad?
    “for you are a stiff-necked people”
    “. . . most commentators see this as a negative trait . . . a few see it as positive: The stubbornness of Jews in the face of persecution has enabled us to remain Jewish through the centuries.” (p1024, Etz Chaim)

 

There is, however, another and far more striking line of interpretation that can be traced across the centuries. In the twentieth century it was given expression by Rabbi Yitzhak Nissenbaum. The argument he attributed to Moses was this: “Almighty G-d, look upon this people with favour, because what is now their greatest vice will one day be their most heroic virtue.

They are indeed an obstinate people. When they have everything to thank You for, they complain. Mere weeks after hearing Your voice they make a golden calf. But just as now they are stiff-necked in their disobedience, so one day they will be equally stiff-necked in their loyalty. Nations will call on them to assimilate, but they will refuse. Mightier religions will urge them to convert, but they will resist. They will suffer humiliation, persecution, even torture and death because of the name they bear and the faith they profess, but they will stay true to the covenant their ancestors made with You. They will go to their deaths saying Ani maamin, “I believe”. This is a people awesome in its obstinacy – and though now it is their failing, there will be times far into the future when it will be their noblest strength.

The fact that Rabbi Nissenbaum lived and died in the Warsaw ghetto gives added poignancy to his words.”

(Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.org, A stiff-necked people and Why civilizations fail )

Conclusions

1.  An important continuum to keep in mind leads from the positive attributes of  persistence and determination but can cross over to being stubborn and stiff-necked and narrow-minded.
When are you crossing the line?

2. It may be that there is a positive aspect to “stiff-necked”, but our continued civilization depends on belief in a power greater than ourselves — on not being stiff-necked in arrogance. Civilizations rise and fall, but we are still here.