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Friday Night Sermon (August 7, 2020): "A Stiff Necked People"

This week’s Torah portion, “Ekev”, continues Moses' second discourse to this new generation of Israelites that will now possess the land. He exhorts them to be true and faithful to God, His commandments, and the covenant. He reviews how the previous generation had contended with God and complained numerous times after God had sustained them with water, food, and shelter, and had given them his Torah.

Moses warns them that they are a stiff-necked people (עַם־קְשֵׁה־עֹ֖רֶף). While they saw God’s wonders and miracles with their own eyes, they still questioned Him and disobeyed him on many occasions. The phrase “stiff necked people” has been used many times to describe our people referring to our stubbornness to accept what is.

While the connotation is a negative one, consider that this can be seen as merely a character trait with both positive and negative connotations. Even though there are many commentators that take our people to task for being a stiff-necked people, there are those that will state that there are some positive aspects as well.

As a stiff-necked people, we are stubborn, unyielding and—most of all—contentious. We complained about just about everything. We strived with God when he gave us water, bread and meat. We complained after he sheltered us by day with the cloud and night with the fire. Even after God performed the miracle of splitting the Sea of Reeds so we could pass through in safety while destroying the Egyptians, that didn’t seem to be enough.

It was no wonder that God almost destroyed us!

On other hand, however, after over three thousand years here we still are, same people, same Torah. We Jews have literally stood the test of time and adversity. We have been persecuted by the Crusades and pogroms. We were almost destroyed various times by the various Inquisitions and by the Shoah.

Throughout it all, we have not only remained true to our covenant with God and His teaching. We have been kicked out of almost every country in Europe at one time or another moving successively to whichever country welcomed us. Oftentimes while we were there, we thrived.

No sooner did we settle into a new place then we got busy setting up our community. We started to make livings for ourselves and we set up schools for our children. We built synagogues and made sure we studied and kept Torah. We kept our laws and our traditions. Most of the time we were fairly successful.

Over the last two thousand years that we have been in exile, we’ve remained Jews under the most horrific and stringent conditions. Here, then, is the positive good aspect of being stiff necked. Our stubbornness helped us keep the faith through all those difficult times.

One of the traits that has been cited about our people is how we can rise so high and fall so far. It has been suggested that we were given Torah to be a light among the other nations, an example of what morality people can achieve. Torah is there is help us ascend spiritual heights.

This was Moses’ message in Ekev, and we would do well to take it to heart. Moses may have been speaking only of the negative aspects of being stiff-necked as he was warning this new generation, but one wonders what goodness he saw in our people when we did not even see it ourselves. After all, he pleaded our cause to God when He wanted to destroy us. Moses knew what we could achieve.

During his final discourses, Moses did his best to layout the positive and negative aspects of who we are and how we’ve behaved. Moses seemed to know more than anyone to what heights we can climb. We just have to make sure we remain stiff necked to our principles and Torah while being the best we can be.

After all, we don’t want to make Moses look bad in front of G-d, right?

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