Though the expression appears a few times in Tanakh, it is in this chapter that “stiff-necked people” becomes Moshe’s central chiding term to describe the people of Israel.
A metaphor for stubbornness, stiff-neckedness is an allusion to an ox used for plowing or harrowing, one which does not allow itself to be led. Like the analogy of the “yoke of heaven,” stiff-necked is derived from the biblical ideal of a master-servant relationship between God and the Israelites, where the Israelites’ stubbornness is referring to their unwillingness to follow God’s commandments.
Yet, the yoke of heaven is not just any yoke—and thus, the ox, though is a familiar agricultural trope for the biblical Jew, is not a true depiction of our relationship with God. In fact, God broke the yoke that Israelites carried like animals under Pharaoh: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out from the Land of Egypt to be their slaves no more, who broke the bars of your yoke and made you walk upright” (Lev 26:13). The yoke of heaven is one under which a Jew can stand straight, and perhaps ironically, independent.
Being upright and stiff-necked, however, does not allow us to be in relationship with God. Sforno comments (Devarim 9:6) that stiff-neckedness results in one’s inability to see other opinions, or one's own wrong: one cannot, will not, move her head. Unlike an ox, which is required to faithfully plow away, unable to turn its head under the yoke, rarely seeing its master, we need to be able to turn our heads, and thus ourselves, toward God. This turning—teshuvah—requires vulnerability and admission of weakness.
In tomorrow’s chapter, parallel to relaxing our stiff necks, we are required to circumcise our hearts. The rawness of the heart, together with the softness of the neck, guides us in carrying the yoke while standing upright.
Viktoria Bedo is in her third year as a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and is pursuing an MA in Rabbinics.
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