Eikev: Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25
“You Are a Stiffnecked People!”
In the middle of our Torah portion Moses, once again, admonishes our people for our intractable stubbornness: “Know, then, that it is not for any virtue of yours that the Eternal your God is giving you this good land to possess; for you are a stiffnecked people.” [Deut. 9:6]
It is true. If God had a side, we would be the proverbial thorn. We argue, chronically kvetch, oppose and contradict; we are never satisfied. It started with Adam and Eve and the story of that tree God warned them not to eat from. It continued with the patriarchs and matriarchs, their descendants, down to us. It is, by now, etched in our DNA. We abhor dogma, dispute any “fait accompli,” and revolt against the very idea of “blind following.” Because we are a people that questions everything, we have challenged every oppressor, every bestower of forced-conversions, every emancipator; we stood up to the most conformist regimes, yet sustained and expanded our own national, cultural and religious identity in the process.
Torah isn’t interested, however, with the outer manifestations of our stiffneckedness—beneficial or otherwise. The Torah is the Spiritual Treaty of our people and concerns itself mostly with inwardly directed matters. Though our stubbornness may serve us when dealing with the outer world, it is our greatest obstacle when it comes to our spiritual unfolding. As Moses explains: “When you have…built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased… you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’” [Deut. 8:12-17] We claim authorship of all the blessings in our lives; we see them as our accomplishments. We look past our privileged upbringing, the wealth of our nation, the democratic pluralistic free society we live and work in, and all the myriad other circumstances that allow us to accomplish so much. We claim authorship for our failures too, by the way. That’s why we are so upset with ourselves when things don’t turn out as we expect. Even when we are victim of an incident, we assign ourselves blame—as if we were the ones in charge, the ones in control. Absurdly, we see ourselves as the sole authors of our lives.
This stiffnecked false claim of authorship of ours, addicted as it is to control, is what keeps us mired on our journey to awakening. It is what props-up the illusion of a separate sense of self. Wayne Liquorman, an Advaita teacher, calls this delusion the False Sense of Authorship (FSA). In Judaism, this False Sense of Authorship is called Yetzer HaRa, literally “The Evil Inclination”—i.e. that which estranges us from God, from Self-Awareness. It is so powerful that, even in meditation, it tricks us in falsely claiming to be the one meditating, the one aware. That is why true meditation ultimately leads to the dissolving of the meditator.
Yet our stiffneckedness could also become our greatest asset. When applied in the service of awakening, our stubbornness, our relentless questioning can be turned into a most finely sharpened sword to slay the false separate sense of self. Slashing through our own dogmas, beliefs and certainties, our own conformism vis-à-vis our undisputed received ideas and concepts, would be the first step on the long journey to “the good land” that “the Eternal your God is giving you… to possess.” And isn’t it exactly how a journey of a thousand miles—or a wandering of 40 years—always begins?