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Parashat Ekev

July 28, 2010

By Sandy Horowitz

Towards the end of my high school senior year, I woke up one morning with an intense neck spasm, barely able move my head without severe pain. It subsided after awhile, thanks to painkillers and an embarrassingly unattractive neck collar.

Viewing this incident as a physical mirror of my mental state at the time, it s clear that the timing wasn t coincidental  “ I wasn t feeling ready for whatever might lie ahead as I stepped into adulthood.

The term k sheh-oref, or  œstiff-necked , which appears several times in Ekev and in the Exodus text which is referenced in this week s Torah portion, also speaks to us about the question of our ancestors  readiness to meet their future, as they prepared to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land.

We first encounter the use of k sheh-oref at Mount Sinai: witnessing the golden calf incident causes God to comment,  œI see that this is a stiff-necked people.  (Exodus 32:9) It is used three more times (Ex 33:3, 33:5, 34:9) as God initially wants to strike down all the golden-calf-worshippers, then allows them to live but refuses to go among them, and finally agrees to be among them and lead them. Moses  œtalks God down,  to borrow a phrase from Rachel Maddow, and God changes as a result of Moses  persuasiveness  “ but the people continue to remain k sheh-oref.

One can hardly blame them for their stiff-necked ways back then  “ barely out of slavery, led into the desert with no idea where they were going, asked to follow a God whom they had not known during their years in Egypt. It was probably all they could do to put one foot in front of the other, looking neither to the side nor upwards towards this newly-reintroduced God.

But in Ekev Moses recounts continuing examples of their stiff-necked ways:  œAgain you provoked the Lord at Taberah, and at Massah, and at Kivrot-hata avah.  (Deut. 9:22)  ¦  œas long as I have known you, you have been defiant toward the Lord.  (Deut. 9:24) During forty years of wandering, neither God s retribution nor Moses  anger succeeded in easing the complaints our stiff-necked ancestors.

Moses tells them that the land they are about to receive from God is given to them despite their ways, so that the promise to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob can be fulfilled:  œKnow, 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.  (Deut. 9:6) They did not earn, or even necessarily deserve this gift of the Promised Land  “ but they re nonetheless going to have to be ready to take it.

There is another citation of k sheh-oref, which warns of the dangers of remaining in this condition. Looking ahead to Proverbs 29:1 we read,  œOne oft reproved may become stiff-necked, but he will be suddenly broken beyond repair.  As oft-reproved slaves, they came by their stiff necks legitimately; but with the great task that lies before them, they cannot afford to remain in this condition. Much will be required of them as they face forthcoming battles and encounter the temptation to worship the gods of the conquered people. The Proverbs citation is not merely a personal warning, for in a larger sense the very survival of the Jewish people post-Jordan-crossing, will depend on their ability to keep faith with God.

What then, is the biblical cure for this stiff-necked condition, and how will they prevent becoming  œbroken beyond repair ? Far more effective than modern neck-collars and painkillers, Moses tells the people:  œcut away therefore the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more  (Deut. 10:16) ¦ love therefore the lord your God  (Deut. 11:1). This message is so significant that Moses repeats a section of what we now know as the V ahavta prayer from last week s Torah portion:  œSet My words upon your heart ¦inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates  “ to the end that you and your children may endure  (11:18-21).

As the Israelites sat and listened, perhaps they envisioned their new life as they prepared to enter the promised land: they would replace their desert-worn tents with real homes and permanent doorposts, and they would place upon them God s words contained in mezzuzot. Thus would they be reminded to soften the thickness about their hearts and thereby release the stiffness in their necks. May it be so for us as well.


Sandy Horowitz is a cantorial student at The Academy for Jewish Religion.