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The 17th of Tamuz: Our Restless, Stiff-Necks

A stiff-necked person is a stubborn person, a person whose obstinance makes them unwilling and unable to change.
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June 17, 2021
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As I bent my knees to support the weight resting firmly on my upper back, I knew something was awry. I was performing a simple back squat, an exercise directed at strengthening and conditioning one’s legs, so I wondered, as I finished my set: why did the metal barbell hurt my neck hurt so badly? I learned later what had occurred—the barbell, fit with an extra two hundred pounds of weight plates, fractured my T1 spinous process. One minimally invasive surgery and seven years later, I still suffer from a chronically inflamed, stiff neck.

However, I write today not about that stiff neck, but rather another malady—an ailment I have spent the last month stretching and massaging in the desperate hope that it will loosen: my spiritually stiff neck.

On the seventeenth of the Jewish month of Tammuz, Jews will begin a relatively minor, albeit significant, fast in commemoration of five tragic events, all of which occurred on that exact same date throughout our people’s troubled history. Today, I would like to focus on one of the more well-known calamities: Moses shattering the two tablets at Mount Sinai.

Broadly, the story goes something like this: Moses ventured up Mount Sinai, alone, to receive the tablets from God. When God finally delivered the Ten Commandments to Moses, he made his way down the mountain, only to be greeted by the Israelites worshipping a golden calf. Outraged over the blatant display of idolatry, Moses smashed the divinely delivered tablets.

While Moses would eventually return to the summit of the mountain and retrieve another pair of tablets from God, the audacious actions of the Jewish people will forever mar this epic interaction between God and His chosen people. Thus, to this day, we fast to remember Moses’ understandable, yet deeply saddening, destruction of the tablets.

In fact, at Sinai God shared Moses’ ire. As he looked down upon the people he had just freed from bondage in Egypt, he contemplated outrightly destroying the entire Jewish people—save Moses. To God, the people’s sacrilegious display evinced that they were unworthy of God’s grace, protection and blessing.

Yet, truly understanding what transpired at Sinai and Moses’ shattering of the tablets requires a discussion of not just how the Jewish people transgressed—that is, the nature of the construction of the golden calf—but why they felt compelled to do so. What was their impetus—why did a people so recently liberated by God from one of the mightiest empires in human history knowingly and intentionally forsake Him?

To God, the answer was clear: the Jewish people were “stiff-necked” (Exodus 32:9).

That phrase has a clear meaning in our common, modern parlance; a stiff-necked person is a stubborn person, a person whose obstinance makes them unwilling and unable to change. So, if we are to proceed with a colloquial and contemporary understanding of the phrase, the text suggests that God took issue with the Jewish people’s obduracy. However, such a reading, while plausible, seems anachronistic and, thus, potentially misleading.

That phrase has a clear meaning in our common, modern parlance; a stiff-necked person is a stubborn person, a person whose obstinance makes them unwilling and unable to change.

At face value, the adjective itself—understood through a modern lens—does not seem entirely applicable to the situation at hand, given the actions of the Jewish people. Certainly, the Jewish people were obdurate, but by constructing and worshipping the golden calf they were also disrespectful, sinful, weak-willed and impious. Merely describing them as stubborn, while accurate in part, does not fully encapsulate the extent of their collective transgression.

So, how can we better and more completely understand God’s quip? The answer lies in not only a more literal reading of the biblical text but also appreciating the events that preceded the idolatrous episode that took place at Sinai.

Recall that when Moses ascended Sinai to receive the Torah, he was up there for quite some time—40 days and nights. In essence, the Jewish people were left at the foot of the mountain, awaiting his descent. We can suspect that, at first, the Israelites were patient, but, as time went on, and Moses’ days on the mountain turned into weeks, the Jewish people became more and more anxious. They became restless.

Where was Moses? Was he ever coming down? Was Moses actually speaking with God? Was God going to follow through with His covenant? Does God even exist at all?

This collective uneasiness led to collective restlessness, and their restlessness led to their collective stiff-neckedness.

Because, in a literal sense, what kind of person has a stiff neck? The sort of person who is constantly on-edge and impatient. A person who uneasily twists, quirks, and contorts. A person who is not content with their lot in life. A person who is unable to loosen and let go. A person who has not yet learned to have trust in God.

In this sense, the Israelites could have certainly used a chiropractor. As God looked down upon them dancing and prostrating themselves before a golden calf, an idol, He realized His people, the people He had just freed from bondage and guided through the wilderness, had not truly accepted Him. The faintest whiff of trouble—Moses not descending Sinai fast enough for their liking—threw the Israelites into a fit of restlessness. Their failure to trust in God made them uneasy. It kept their bodies tense and necks stiff. They did not and could not relax and recognize their real Lord.

And have we not all had moments like the Israelites? I certainly have. We live in an age of restlessness and, consequently, stiff-neckedness. When we feel uneasy or unfulfilled, we make our own golden calves—we try to find meaning and comfort in our work, money, exercise, partying, or personal displays of spirituality. And, as the pandemic wanes and modern life soon fully reopens, we will again be pulled in a panoply of directions, as we frantically try to meet all our social obligations. Modern life makes us incredibly harried—careening from one task, meeting, or event to the other; we often find our schedules to be full but our hearts to be empty.

When we feel uneasy or unfulfilled, we make our own golden calves—we try to find meaning and comfort in our work, money, exercise, partying, or personal displays of spirituality.

Because, while the social and self-fulfilling can be spiritual, they are rarely satisfactory. In many ways, we are like the Jewish people at the foot of Sinai; we yearn for a connection with something greater than ourselves. But when our prayers are not instantly answered, our wishes not immediately granted, and when we seek purpose and come up empty-handed, our souls become restless; we tense up and our necks become stiff.

So, how may we find rest, contentment, and meaning? On the 17th of Tamuz and beyond, let’s strive for a religious and spiritual quietism of sorts. In times of distress and doubt, find comfort in your family and faith. Realize that the busiest life is not always the most meaningful. Resist succumbing to your restlessness when adversity rears its head. Stretch and loosen your neck, bow your head—figuratively or literally—and try your very best to “walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).


Elias Neibart is a recent college graduate living and working in New York City. This fall he will pursue an MPhil at the University of Cambridge, and in 2022 he will begin his legal education at Harvard Law School. 

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