On stiff necks and long tunnels: Parashat Ekev 5777

My father tells the following joke every so-often: A fellow walks into a doctor’s office and complains that every time he contorts his head in some insane position, his neck begins to hurt. The doctor tells him “So don’t contort your head in some insane position”. I guess it’s funnier if you see my father tell it but the joke is making a point: if it hurts to do it and you don’t need to do it, then don’t do it.

Am Yisrael are a stiff-necked people. Hashem tells this to Moshe after Am Yisrael build themselves a golden calf (egel) [Shemot 32:9-10]: “I have seen this people and behold! they are a stiff necked people. Now leave Me alone and My anger will be kindled against them so that I will annihilate them and make you into a great nation.” A few things are clear from this verse: [1] Am Yisrael have some incurable birth defect called “stiff-neckedness”, [2] it can’t be corrected, so [3] they’re going to be replaced. The reason I say that stiff-neckedness can’t be cured is because if it were curable then Hashem would have let Am Yisrael repent for their sin. Repentance could make their stiff necks more flexible and could hopefully prevent future recurrences of the egel. The fact that Hashem does not consider repentance a valid option means that He has concluded that Am Yisrael are who they are.

There are a few problems with this premise. First, stiff-neckedness might not be such a bad thing. When Moshe pleads with Hashem to forgive Am Yisrael’s sin, he says [Shemot 34:9]: “If I have now found favour in Your eyes, Hashem, let [You] go now in our midst because[1] they are a stiff necked people, and You shall forgive our iniquity and our sin and thus secure us as Your possession”. Rav Nachum Eliezer Rabinovitch comments that if Moshe is trying to secure forgiveness specifically because Am Yisrael are a stiff-necked people, it must mean that having a stiff neck is in some way advantageous. Another problem with the assumption of innate Jewish stiff-neckedness is found in Parashat Ekev, where Moshe warns Am Yisrael [Devarim 10:16] “You shall circumcise the foreskin of your heart and you shall not be stiff-necked any longer”. If the Torah can command us not to be stiff-necked, ergo it must mean that the syndrome is controllable. If so, how can Hashem maintain that a stiff-necked nation is a nation incapable of repentance?

Let’s address these points one at a time. Rav Rabinovitch brings the RaLBaG who explains that being “stiff-necked” means not being able to change course. It means stubbornly sticking to the plan, even when the plan is falling apart in your face. It means not being able to look right or left, let alone backwards. A stiff-necked person will be nearly impossible to sway. He will find it nearly impossible to repent because no matter what the outcome, he will be absolutely certain that he has done the right thing and that there is no need to change course. However, this kind of stubbornness can also be blessing in disguise: A stiff-necked person will cling stubbornly to his beliefs even though everything tells him to jettison them. There is no nation that has undergone more turmoil than Am Yisrael. We have been exiled from our homeland twice – we are still in the throes of a two-thousand-year exile in which we have been expelled from nearly every country in which we ever lived, an exile in which we have been degraded, raped, and butchered. How many of our brothers and sisters died with a stiff neck with the words “Shema Yisrael” on their lips, when they could have lived out their lives as happy Moslems or Christians? Two thousand years later, here we are. We have not given up hope. We’re just as stiff-necked as ever and a good thing it is. Only a stiff-necked people could weather six wars and umpteen military operations in less than seventy years. Only a stiff-necked people could absorb ten times its population, could stir together Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Anglos and Ethiopians, ultra-orthodox and atheists, and at the same time could metamorphose into the “Start-up Nation”, a nation that has more people learning Torah than ever before in the entire history of Am Yisrael.

But wait a minute: If being stiff-necked is not such a terrible thing, why would the Torah command us “you shall not be stiff-necked any longer”? The answer to this question lies between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Today, the train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem takes about an hour and a half, winding its way slowly through scenic mountains and lush valleys. This all changes next year when a new express line opens and the travel time is reduced to twenty-eight minutes. The increased speed of the journey is not due to the reduced length of the new track – it is only a few kilometres shorter than today’s track. The secret lies in the gradient: in order for the train to maintain maximum velocity – these new electric trains will be travelling at over one hundred miles an hour – the train cannot climb at a gradient of more than three percent, a bit less than 2 degrees. Today’s track meanders up and down mountains, forcing the train to slow to a crawl. The new track uses tunnels and bridges to ensure that the gradient never exceeds 3 percent. It includes the longest tunnel in Israel as well as the longest bridge. Due to the 3-percent constraint, the train cannot climb all the way to the top of the mountain in the allocated distance and so the new Jerusalem train station is 80 metres underground. Actually, this is a bit perplexing. The new line is 57 km long. At a 3-percent incline, the line should be able to climb to about 1700 metres Above Sea Level (ASL). Jerusalem is less than 800 metres ASL, meaning that the train station is about 700 metres ASL. Why, then is the station underground? The answer goes back to my father’s joke: if you don’t need to climb, then don’t climb. For the most of the trip, the new line follows the relatively flat terrain, using short tunnels and bridges to smooth out any hills. Only when it reaches the Jerusalem mountains does the line need to climb, but when it begins to climb it enters “Stiff-Necked Mode”: the last 23 km of the line are exclusively tunnels or bridges[2] and contain nearly no curves. The line can climb only about 700 meters over this distance in order to remain below 3 percent incline, and so the last stop is 80 metres underground.

If it hurts to do it and you don’t need to do it, then don’t do it. The Torah commands us “V’orpechem lo takshu od” – “You shall not be stiff-necked od”. Above, we translated the Hebrew word “od” as “any longer”, as if to stay “Stop being stiff-necked!” But there is another way of translating od: the first time od is used in the Torah is in connection with Adam and Eve, who have a third child one hundred and thirty years after Cain kills Abel [Bereishit 4:25]: “Adam knew his wife od, and she bore a [third] son”. Rashi explains that “od” here means not “again”, but, rather, “more”, as in “[Adam’s] desire [for Eve] was increased above his previous desire”. After one hundred and thirty years of mourning for their first two children, Adam and Eve fell in love again, with even a stronger love and a stronger commitment than before. Now we can understand what the Torah is commanding us. Moshe succeeded in convincing Hashem that there is merit to being stiff-necked. Hashem agreed to go in our midst specifically because we are stiff-necked people. But there must be limits. When the Torah commands “You shall not be stiff-necked od”, it is telling us “You shall not be stiff-necked more than is required”, or, better, “Stop being so stiff-necked!

Am Yisrael is blessed with a stiff neck. While it can admittedly get us into serious trouble at times, it is the secret to our longevity. The Torah, cognizant of this fact, warns us to use our secret power sparingly, and to use it for good and not for evil. It’s all up to us.


Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and HaRav Chaim Nosson Eliyahu ben Lana.

[1] Rashi interprets the verse as saying “go now in our midst even if they are a stiff necked people”. The problem with this interpretation is that Moshe seems to be shooting a gaping hole in his argument. It is unclear why Hashem should forgive Am Yisrael even though they are stiff-necked.

[2] Actually, there are far more tunnels than bridges, as Elon Musk will tell you, it is easier to bore a tunnel than to build a bridge. The tunnels are a work of technological art: dug with a tunnel boring machine imported from Germany that simultaneously carves into the mountain in the front and lays cement in the back, without drilling and blasting. Totally cool.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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