Rabbi David Walk
We Jews have been known as the stubborn people for a long, long time. If you Google the words 'stubborn Jews', you get some interesting and frightening hits. There are articles bordering (or even crossing the border) on Anti-Semitism about the attitudes of the present Israeli government. There are no shortage of Christian sites describing the historic accusation that it was our people's stubborn streak which prevented our ancestors' acceptance of Christianity. However, there are also the Jewish sites praising our stubborn adherence to our heritage and our Torah, which helps explain our continued existence these thousands of years. There are quotes from Mark Twain (All things are mortal, but the Jew.) and Leo Tolstoy (The Jew is the emblem of eternity.) and Blaise Pascal (When asked by Louis XIV of France to give proof of the supernatural. He answered: 'Why, the Jews, your Majesty.'). Our stubborn resistance to persecution, conversion, assimilation and time itself gets high praise on these sites. But it makes no difference, friend or foe, all these sites cite one source for this stubborn streak: For they are a stiff necked people (Exodus 32:9). There's actually a blog spot proudly called Am Kshe Oref, and subtitled 'Anybody out there good at neck-rubs?' We're always weighing virtuous tenacity with mulish inflexibility. And, wouldn't you know it, that verse appears in this week's Torah reading, concerning the Golden Calf
The Hebrew expression am k'she oref, has long been translated as 'stiff-necked people.' Rashi on the spot explains: They turned the hardness of the backs of their necks toward those who reproved them, and they refused to listen. This makes sense because in Hebrew there are two words for neck. We have tzavar, which describes the soft front of our necks (where the neck is cut in kosher slaughtering, shechita), and oref, which designates the more solid back of the neck. R. Ovadia S'forno adds that the tendons in our neck are made of iron, and it, therefore, takes a lot to move us. Rav Avraham Ibn Ezra explains that this term means that they don't listen to mitzvoth. The Talmud refers to the Jews as fierce (az) and uses this expression to prove it (Beitzah 25b). Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch proposes that the term implies rejecting an immediate obligation to follow old patterns of behavior from pre-existing habit. In the case of the Golden Calf, sadly, this is a return to the ingrained idolatry of the Egyptian experience. It was a move backwards.
But are 'stubborn' or 'habitual' the only ways to understand this expression? The Sfat Emet (Reb Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Gur, 1847-1905) suggests a different approach. He explains that the neck can be used to describe the concepts of 'front' and 'back'. We often describe walking away from something (hardly an act of stubbornness) as show the back of one's neck. The great Rebbe of Gur goes on to theorize that the word for front is panim, and often suggests the inner reality of an entity. Therefore, we can postulate that that oref or back really is referring to the chitzoniyut or external nature of a person. We merit God's greatest gifts, like the Torah or Eretz Yisrael because of our powerful inner strength, but sometimes we display some outer or superficial traits, which are not worthy of these great gifts. Sadly, that's what the Jews did at the foot of Har Sinai, when they despaired of Moshe ever returning from his rendezvous with God, and fashioned the Golden Calf to replace him.
Rav Re'em Hacohen, the Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivat Otniel (where Yishai, my youngest learned) adds a new dimension to this observation of the Sfat Emet. Rav Re'em points out that in the two verses right after the first reference to k'she oref, words denoted front (af, p'nei, panim) appear five times. He explains that this whole section emphasizes front and facing as superior to back and turning away. The epiphany at Sinai was the moment of panim el panim (being 'face to face') with God. Even the tablets themselves were miraculously crafted so that the text faced the reader in every direction. God is stressing that this face to face encounter can facilitate a closeness to and illumination of new worlds far beyond our mundane existence. However, our ancestors chose oref and those horizons quickly faded away.
Rav Re'em goes on to explain that these expressions of panim and oref in these chapters bear witness to a roller coast ride of a relationship between God and the Children of Israel. I think that this is true in our relationships with each other as well. In times of stress, relationships will endure only if we continue to look each other in the face; they rupture when we turn away.
The soon to be dedicated Mishkan illuminates a number of these points. Rabbi David Forman explains that many of the items in the sanctuary represent functions of a face, with candles for the eyes, incense for the nose and bread for the mouth. I think that the most powerful representation of this reality is the stance of two cherubs on the Holy Ark, 'and they shall face each other (Exodus 25:20).' Then God explains to Moshe, 'there I will meet with you…from between the two cherubim…I will communicate with you concerning the Children of Israel (verse 22).' Symbolically, the facing angelic figures represent the need to turn towards God constantly, if we want to receive Divine guidance.
The stereotype of being a stiff necked people will never fade, and this perseverance and persistence has served us well. However, this creative interpretation of looking the other in the face is a powerful concept. Many mystics strive to hold God before them when they pray (shiviti hashem k'negdi tamid, Psalms 16:8). This is profound, and worth emulating. We should always work on being face to face in all our relationships. If you care about someone, look them in the face. You'll be moved by what gazes back.