Ki Tissa: A Stiff Neck

April 15, 2011 at 3:25 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa | Leave a comment

(This blog was first posted on February 26, 2010.)

And God said to Moshe: I have seen this people, and look, it is a stiff-necked people.  (Exodus/Shemot 32:9)

keshei-oref = stiff-necked, stubborn, obstinate

kasheh = hard, difficult, heavy

oref = back of the neck, nape

The story of the Golden Calf makes Ki Tissa (“When you lift up”) a dramatic Torah portion.  One curious detail is that the phrase keshei-oref-am, “a stiff-necked people”, appears four times in this one Torah portion.

Three of the four times, God tells Moses that the people are stiff-necked.  The first time is when God threatens to consume the people in anger, and make a nation out of Moses instead.  (Exoodus 32:9)  Moses talks God out of it.

After all the calf-worshipers have been killed, God tells Moses that the people can still move into the land of milk and honey, but they will be led by an angel or messenger.  “I will not go up among you,” God says, “lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked-people.”  (Exodus 33:3)

The people are grief-stricken at the bad news.  What bad news?  They’ll still get the land of milk and honey.  But in their opinion, being led by a messenger from God is no substitute for having the divine presence travel among them.  (Exodus 33:4)

God tells Moses a third time that the children of Israel they are a stiff-necked people, so if God’s own presence went with them, God could not resist annihilating them.  (Exodus 33:5) The divine pillar of cloud only appears at the Tent of Meeting Moses has pitched outside the camp, and only when Moses goes there to speak with God.

After a while Moses makes another pitch to God, saying that if the divine presence does not accompany the people, no one will know that God favors them.  God agrees, for Moses’ sake.  After the curious scene in which Moses sees God’s back, Moses repeats his request, this time reminding God that Moses, at least, has found favor in God’s eyes, and that“it is a stiff-necked-people.”  (Exodus 34:9)  The implication is that God should forgive the people despite their stiff necks.

Anyone could understand God rejecting the people for making and worshiping a golden calf.  But why does God keep threatening to consume, annihilate, or at the very least, stay away from the people because they are stiff-necked?

If “stiff-necked” means stubborn, then it can be either a good or a bad trait.  It is bad for the Israelites to stubbornly cling to the need for a physical representation of God.  But it is good for the Israelites (at least those who survive) to stubbornly cling to serving God through 40 years of wandering, and all the trials and catastrophes since then, up to the present day.

What if “stiff-necked” means a refusal to turn one’s head?  Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno wrote in the 14th century that the people’s necks were like iron sinews, and they would not turn to listen to any righteous teacher, and therefore they were unlikely to repent. Isaac Abravanel wrote in the 15th century that stiff-necked people are unable to turn and look ahead to see the consequences of their actions.

My own neck is literally stiff, due to an old injury, and I have to work daily to loosen the tight muscles.  The same is true for me metaphorically.  Sometimes (thank God) I realize that I’ve been stubbornly following the wrong course of action because I was unconsciously reacting to an old emotional wound.  Then I know it’s time to turn my head, examine where I’ve been heading and where I might go instead, and look for teachers who can show me a different path.

Stubbornness helps you to keep going despite difficulties when you are following the path that the divine presence within you knows is correct.  Turning your neck to look at other paths helps you to find the right way to “walk with God” when you get lost.

May we all know when to be stiff-necked, and when to turn our heads.


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