We are a stiff-necked people. That’s what we are called throughout the Torah by God and Moses, and through much of Jewish history by everybody else, including ourselves. The phrase shows up in this week’s parasha, Ekev, as Moses recounts the story of the Golden Calf, not as an adjective, but rather an admonition against becoming stiff-necked. There is a curious phrase that precedes it here, too (Deut 10:16) “Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts (literally, “arlat l’vavchem” –circumcise your hearts) and stiffen your necks no more.” The words are in that order for a reason, I believe.
As anyone who ever woke up with a stiff neck knows, we can neither look left nor right without pain. We see only in one direction. We have only one perspective. We engage with the world with a limited view. With time (and a good chiropractor!), we can loosen up the stiffness, and broaden our perspectives, free of pain. But what if we got stuck in that painful position? What if we got to the point where our heads couldn’t move at all?
Quite simply, that is the essence of intolerance. It is the inability to consider anyone else’s viewpoint or opinion as valid. The path from intolerance to acceptance lies in the order of these words. The Torah here teaches that first we must remove the layers and layers of thickening around our hearts, and then we will stiffen our necks no more. Those layers around our hearts keep them from expanding to include others, and if we are unable to expand our hearts, we cannot bring others close to us, especially if they are different.
It’s interesting to note that the text that follows specifically focuses on upholding the cause for the orphan, the widow and the strangers, providing them with food and clothing, and to befriend (love) the stranger. (Deut 10:18-19). As with many other sections in the Torah, we are told to care for the most vulnerable in our community. So why add “befriend the stranger”? Because when you befriend someone, you are literally opening yourself up to see what they see, feel what they feel. When you can see the world through another’s eyes, your heart is truly free and open, and not constricted by the habit of seeing things only from one vantage point.
We will move into Elul soon, the month that precedes the High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We begin to grapple with the ideas of forgiveness and new beginnings. This time of year, it is the Haftarot (plural of Haftarah, the weekly Prophet readings) of Consolation that turn our attention to these ideas, but perhaps the Torah is also focusing our thoughts in this direction this week. When we cut away the thickness around our hearts and get the stiffness out of our necks, we can look around and see where we need to go next.