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Updated: Jun 29, 2021

At the risk of sounding too rigid, a strong argument can be made that inflexibility is at the core of many mental health struggles. Cognitive rigidity, or the inability to adapt thinking to new demands or situations, is connected to anxiety, depression, phobias, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Even absent a diagnosable disorder, being rigid, stubborn, and inflexible can lead to various negative personal and social outcomes. Learning how to appropriately and flexibly adapt to new situations without getting stuck in old and unhelpful paradigms of thinking and acting lies at the core of several therapeutic approaches such as Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

It is rather remarkable, Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv points out, that after the grave sin of creating and worshipping a graven image, God’s main criticism of Bnei Yisrael is that they are a stiff-necked people – an “am keshei oref” (Shemot 32:9), and are therefore worthy of destruction. The depravity and blasphemousness of the idol worship takes a back seat to flawed character. Rashi, explaining the language of being stiff-necked, writes that they stick the back of their necks out to those rebuking them, refusing to offer a receptive ear. This trait impedes any ability to admit mistakes, to listen to criticism, or to repent. God can forgive an egregious sin, but only after acknowledgement and contrition; both of which are unfeasible for those who are stiff-necked.

Rashi’s conceptualization of being stiff-necked incorporates an element of self-assuredness within the stubbornness. In a slightly different interpretation, Rabbi Avraham ben HaRambam understands being stiff-necked as a metaphor for being set in one’s ways. It is not about being arrogant, but about being stuck in habit. Bnei Yisrael were steeped in a culture of idol worship and they couldn’t adapt to a new paradigm of thinking and being. This point is particularly compelling when considered in its psychological context. They thought Moshe was taking too long, and in that moment of nervousness they reverted back to old habits. Stiff-necked people are creatures of habit, and those habits become especially rigid during times of stress.

Abarbanel offers a third understanding of the symbolism of being stiff-necked. He writes that God purposefully created us with the ability to flexibly turn our necks from side to side, allowing us to see any danger that may be coming from behind us. Stiff-necked people cannot turn back to see what is heading towards them. This, Abarbanel argues, is a metaphor for not being able to anticipate the consequences of one’s actions. Bnei Yisrael were acting without thinking about the ramifications of what they were doing. Being flexible means being able to foresee what may happen in the future and modify one’s behavior accordingly.

Each of these approaches provides us with important lessons for our own lives.

Being stiff-necked, whether that means being closed off to criticism, getting stuck in habit, or not foreseeing the consequences of our actions, is detrimental to our well-being. Being functionally flexible and adaptable are essential characteristics that will help us thrive socially, emotionally, and spiritually.

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