Eikev: Covered Heart, Stiff Neck

August 9, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Posted in Eikev | Leave a comment

Some common Biblical Hebrew metaphors seem straightforward to English-speakers, some need only a little explanation, and others seem bizarre. The name of this week’s Torah portion, Eikev, is an easy metaphor. The word means “on the heels of”, and makes sense to English-speakers in a fairly literal translation of the first sentence of the portion:

It will happen, on the heels of your listening to these laws, that if you keep and perform them, then God, your god, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 7:12)

Later in this Torah portion, we get the following sentence:

You must circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and you must not stiffen your neck again. Because God, He is your god, the god of gods ... (Deuteronomy 10:16-17)

levav = heart; the seat of thoughts and feelings, the mind

oref = nape, neck, back of the neck

Most English speakers think that stiff-necked means stubborn, and that is certainly part of its meaning in Biblical Hebrew. But in the Torah kasheh-oref (“stiff of neck”) and related phrases have a more specific meaning.

The first time the Torah refers to a stiff neck is right after God has given Moses the two tablets of commandments on Mount Sinai.  God tells Moses that the people below have made and bowed down to a golden calf, and calls them stiff-necked— meaning that they are stubbornly reverting to the old-time religion of Egypt.

Necks are called stiff or hard 19 times in the Torah, and 18 of those references either accuse or warn descendants of the children of Israel regarding their attitude toward God.  Being stiff-necked is associated with deliberately disobeying God— by worshiping other Gods, or by refusing to listen to God, or by refusing to follow God’s laws.

The Torah also has nine references to turning one’s neck to someone. Since the word oref really means the back of the neck, it is not surprising that this Hebrew metaphor covers two English metaphors: turning your back on someone, and turning tail to flee. Perhaps stiff-necked people are those who stubbornly turn their backs on God.

The only time the Torah uses the concept of a stiff neck a different way is in Proverbs 29:1:  Reprimands make a man stiff-necked; suddenly he cracks, and there is no healing.  (If only Moses had known that, it might have been easier for him to lead the Israelites across the wilderness.)

In this week’s Torah portion, when Moses tells the people not to stiffen their necks again, he means that they must not  deliberately turn away from their own religion again.  But what does he mean when he says “You must circumcise the foreskin of your heart“?

The Hebrew word levav does mean the organ that pumps blood, but this literal meaning leaves us with a horrific image of open-heart surgery. In the Torah and Talmud, the heart is also the seat of our stream of consciousness, all our thoughts and feelings. In many Torah passages, a more accurate translation of levav would be “mind”. I usually prefer to keep the original metaphors in my translations from the Torah, but if I retranslate Deuteronomy 10:16 with the words levav (heart) and oref (back of the neck) changed into their implied meanings, here is what we get:

You must circumcise the foreskin of your mind, and you must not stubbornly reject [God] again. 

Then what does it mean to circumcise the foreskin of your mind? The 15th-century rabbi Ovadiah Sforno wrote that the Torah is asking us to remove the covering over our intelligence, by examining our thinking for errors that lead to false beliefs. Eliminating these errors of thought will remove the barrier between our minds and God.

The 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch proposed a harsher interpretation: our thoughts and desires are unruly, so we must gain mastery over them. Once we subordinate our hearts/minds to our real selves, we become able to subordinate ourselves to God.

Circumcision is certainly removing a covering (though what remains is rarely associated with intelligence, today). When Moses describes himself at the burning bush as someone with uncircumcised lips, he implies that an insensitive covering, literal or metaphorical, prevents him from speaking well.

I suppose circumcision can also be seen as a form of discipline; the ancient Israelites did view uncircumcised Greeks and Romans as licentious. But in the Torah, literal circumcision is primarily a sign of the covenant between the Israelites and God, the covenant first ratified by Abraham. Thus circumcisizing your heart is also a metaphor for making a covenant with God–not just with your actions, but with your inner mind.

It is hard enough to obey the rules laid down by your religion (particularly if you are an orthodox Jew facing a list of 613 commandments).  But is it even possible to cut away anything unholy from your innermost thoughts and feelings?

All too often, when we examine our own minds and judge the contents, we reprimand ourselves harshly.  Then we react to our own harshness either by rebelling against our superegos and stiffening our necks (perhaps like the man in the verse from Proverbs above); or by wrapping ourselves in suffocating layers of blame and depression, and sometimes covering that over with denial. It is as if, having peeled back the foreskin over our minds and peeked inside, we then add layer upon layer of extra skin, so we will not see our true inner minds again.

How can we uncover our hidden feelings and beliefs, and leave our minds open and able to grow? I think we need to relax our necks first. We need to be flexible, willing to turn around, to reconsider. Then, if we approach our inner selves either dispassionately or with kindness, instead of with reprimand and blame, we can choose to turn toward the good and the holy. Once we are turning toward God, instead of stubbornly turning our backs on God, then the coverings that have kept us out of a covenant with the divine might not even need to be cut. The barriers might softly fall away.

Or maybe that’s a woman’s point of view, and men need to tame their testosterone drive with a metaphorical circumcision of their hearts!  What do you think?

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