We are popularly known throughout our long history as a ‘stubborn people’. Indeed that appellation was bestowed upon us by G-d Himself when in seeming frustration over observing the Sin of the Golden Calf He sought to eradicate us because we were a עם קשה עורף, a stiff-necked people. It wasn’t the idolatry that warranted His wrath but more significantly our stubbornness, we simply refused to get it.

Strangely though, it is only in reference to this episode alone that the Torah accords us that ‘honorable’ title. It appears in this account four times in our portion with a fifth mention in the Book of Devarim when Moshe reviews this very incident during the last five weeks of his life.

Nowhere else in all of the written Torah is our nation labeled this way ever again. The prophets certainly refer to stiff-necked attitudes that got us into trouble and should be avoided, but the term ‘stiff-necked people’ is never conferred again.

Adding to this mystery is the fact that ערף, the term that is translated as the ‘neck’ is inaccurate. The ערף is more specifically the base of the skull. (See Chullin 19b)

Rashi when defining this attitude of קשה עורף depicts it as follows: מחזירין קשי ערפם לנגד מוכיחיהם וממאנים לשמוע (שמות לב ט), they turned the hardness of their, 'ערפם' ; backs of their skull, toward those who reproved them, and they refused to listen.

Clearly Rashi is not describing their inability to ‘turn’ their necks due to ‘stiffness’, but rather how they simply turned away and displayed the ‘hard’ part of their skulls to those who sought to reproach them.

What then is the significance of this ‘hardness’ of the back of the skull in emphasizing their reluctance to listen? The power of the metaphor is in their simply turning their backs to those who reprove them. What is this hardheadedness all about?


In a fascinating parallel the Arizal teaches that the knot of the Tefillin Shel Rosh, which according to Jewish law must be positioned on the עורף, base of the skull, rests upon the Luz bone which is the indestructible bone that remains even after man decomposes, that man will be resurrected from during that marvelous era of תחיית המתים, Resurrection of the Dead.

Rabbi Yehuda HaChosid says that the knot of the Tefillin Shel Rosh is shaped in the form of the fourth letter in the Hebrew aleph beis, ד, the daled, corresponding to the four times we are called ‘hard necked’. G-d in response to Moshe’s request to understand G-d’s essence and ways and view His glory tells Moshe that He cannot reveal to him His face but rather only His back. The Talmud states that Moshe glimpsed the ‘knot of His Tefillin’. This ‘knot’ is the antidote to their negative attitude of stubbornness.(דברי מנחם סי' יד ז)

What are we to make of all this?

Why did they refuse to listen? Was stubbornness an ingrained trait they simply couldn’t shed?

After calling them a hardheaded people G-d tells Moshe, “Desist from Me. Let My anger flare up against them; and I shall annihilate them...”

From what was Moshe being requested to desist, he hadn’t taken any action yet? The Midrash says that G-d was intimating that he should pray on their behalf. Out of G-d’s love for His people he desired they be saved.

The problem with the nation was they felt undeserving and unworthy. A person who feels he hasn’t lived up to the expectations of others due to his inadequacy will often just turn the other way in dejection. Like a child who senses it has disappointed its parent will turn its back in despair, so too did they walk away dejectedly. G-d wanted to convey to them through Moshe how much He still awaits and hopes for their success and is still counting on them to reach their greatness. Through the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy that Moshe was taught and implemented not only would they realize how much G-d still believes in them, but they would learn that they too, even after failing miserably, can bond with that unconditional love and access that closeness as well.

That is the deeper meaning of the appeal Moshe makes later on to G-d, “Let my Lord go among us - for it is a hard necked people, and you shall forgive our iniquity and error, and make us your heritage.” (שם לד ט)

It is precisely because they tend to feel rejected due to their inadequacy that they need Your presence, Your understanding, Your encouragement. They need to sense that despite their failures You are not disappointed in them but simply are trying to prod them to their ultimate success and happiness.

The ‘hard’ back of our head, that Luz, the eternal connection to G-d and eternity, which previously was too overwhelming for us to accept and on the contrary brought us to a sense of despair is now the ever-present reality of G-d rooting for us.

We are taught that in the Tefillin of G-d the very first verse that is placed within it is:  And who is like Your people Israel, one nation in the world, whom God went to redeem for Himself [as] a people, to make You a name of great and fearful things, to drive nations from before Your people, whom You redeemed from Egypt! (דה"י א יז כא)

The knot situated upon G-d’s head at the base of His skull, as it were, is an eternal message to us that even when our heads are faced away from Him, we realize that deep within our consciousness is the reality that He is always there, believing in us and prodding us on to greatness, and there is never any need to turn away in defeat. 

The Midrash states that this ‘hardheadedness’ has become our praise, as Jews throughout the millennia, as distant from observance they may have found themselves, when push came to shove and they had to choose between life and their love for G-d, have always exclaimed with stubbornness, "או יהודי או צלוב", “Let me remain or Jew or I’d rather die!”

There is piece within each one of us that stubbornly remains cognizant of that exquisite relationship we uniquely possess with the Almighty.

In a world bereft of a belief in a loving Father, who encourages us endlessly to discover Him, one is wont to wallow in despondent emptiness searching for distracted pleasure and indulgence. One who has lost that sense of nobility and purpose is doomed to live a life of wanton and mindless existence.

The masters of the secrets of Torah revealed that פרעה, Pharaoh, the leader of one of the most decadent of societies, has the same letters in his name as הָעֹרֶף, ‘the hard back of the skull’. Similarly the depraved ideology of the idol פעור, Peor, whose worship consisted of defecating in its presence in a demented proclamation of a belief ‘that anything goes’; there is no rhyme or reason in life other that perversion and self-indulgent pleasure, its letters too spell out עוֹרֶף, the ‘hardback of the skull’. These nations who refused to accept a notion of a benevolent G-d were doomed to turn their backs on any hope or enlightenment.

This week we read Parshas Parah , reviewing the laws of purity from the defilement of contact with the dead, is not merely done to commemorate the purification that took place among our people in preparation to bring the Paschal sacrifice in the Temple. It is a declaration of our ability to defy the limitations of mortality and achieve the reality of eternal life absent of death.

May we rediscover our ‘Luz’, our connection to the eternity, our connection to the Eternal, the Almighty, and live lives of joyous allegiance to a loving Father who is never disappointed in us.


צבי טייכמאן