A Stiff-Necked People
In this week’s reading (a special reading for the Shabbat that falls within the days of Passover), Moses refers to Israel as a “stiff-necked people” (Exod 34:9). I once heard a rabbi explain this expression by pointing out that when you have a stiff neck, you can’t turn to the left or right to see anything around you, so you really don’t know what’s going on. This is certainly true, but it misses the point of this biblical phrase.
“Stiff-necked” was what ancient Israelites called an ox who balked at taking the yoke onto its neck, an act of submission necessary for the farmer to be able to plow his fields. By analogy, the people of Israel could be called stiff-necked because they sometimes were reluctant to submit to God’s commandments—so in the verse just cited, Moses asks God to remain in Israel’s midst despite the people’s frequent disobedience.
In other words, accepting the Torah means submitting to God’s laws like an ox taking on the divine yoke. But this whole idea doesn’t sit well with the festival that we are observing this week. Passover celebrates Israel’s liberation from Egyptian servitude; that’s why it is called “the festival of our freedom” (zeman ḥerutenu). But if it is a festival of freedom, why should Israel be criticized in this week’s reading as being stiff-necked? Isn’t refusing to bow one’s neck and submit what freedom is all about?
This question is highlighted in a famous rabbinic comment about another, related biblical verse. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai holding the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, the Torah notes that “the writing was God’s writing, carved (ḥarut) on the tablets” (Exod 32:16). The Talmud (Eruvim 54a) suggests that we read the letters of this word not as “carved” but as “freedom” (ḥerut). If so, then the Talmud would be saying that our submission to the Ten Commandments was actually a kind of liberation.
Paradoxes are not easily explained by the simple-minded commentator. The one thing that seems crucial in reckoning with this one is not stated openly in the Talmud, but crucial nonetheless: Judaism’s bowing down to take on the yoke of God’s commandments is a voluntary act. At first it was a communal voluntary act, when all of Israel agreed to accept God’s covenant (Exod 19:8); nowadays, it is an individual’s voluntary act. So while taking on the yoke of divine commandments may seem like a servile beast’s act of submission, in Judaism it represents a conscious decision to enter into ‘avodat ha-Shem, the service of God. You’re certainly free not to do it, but if you don’t, then you’re just a dumb animal wandering around in a fallow field. Accepting the yoke, by contrast, means seeking to be connected to the Holy One every day through a hundred little acts of obedience. They open the way to what would otherwise be closed off, and in this sense they are indeed the greatest freedom.