The Head & Not The Tail, The Top & Not The Bottom – Ki Tavo 5779

Rosh Hashanah is coming, and with it, an entire menu of culinary treats.  Apples and honey.  Those are obvious.  The challah is round—to symbolize a crown; and filled with raisins—for a sweet new year.

But there is more.  The Talmud recommends a number of foods to eat on Rosh Hashanah, such as beans, leeks, beets, and dates.  The Aramaic names for each of these foods form puns.

For example, rubia—”beans,”sounds like yirbu—”increase”, as in “May our merits increase.”

Karti—”leeks”—sounds like yikartu—”cut off”.  Silkei—”beets”—sounds like yistalku—”removed”.  Tamrei—”dates”—sounds like yitamu—”finished”.  All three of these can be eaten as if to say, “May our enemies be cut off, removed, or finished.”  Take your pick.  Or eat all three.

Other foods have been added to the list.  Rimon—”pomegranate”—”May our mitzvot be as numerous as the seeds in the pomegranate.”  It also happens to be symbolic of fertility, so interpret that as you will.

But the best food to eat on Rosh Hashanah—actually, this is debatable—is the head of a sheep or fish.  Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg would eat the head of a ram, to symbolize the ram that was sacrificed instead of Isaac, which we read about on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

Does anybody here follow this custom?  In my house, we buy gummy fish, cut them in half, and eat just the head.

What do we say when we eat the fish head?  Nih’yeh l’rosh, v’lo l’zanav.  “May we be like the head, and not like the tail.”

It is a strange expression, and it comes from this morning’s Torah portion.

In Parashat Ki Tavo, Moses describes a covenant ceremony that the Israelites will perform as soon as they cross over into the Promised Land, which they be doing without him.  As an entire nation, they renew their commitment to God.  During the ceremony, they recite a litany of blessings and curses which will befall the nation as a consequence of whether the people follow God’s commandments.

The blessings are what we might expect: Abundant rain in the right season.  Successful harvests.  Prosperity.  Victory against enemies.  The other nations of the earth will stand in awe of Israel.

Then, after these tangible blessings have been pronounced, there is one additional blessing that seems less specific.  Un’tanekha Adonai l’rosh v’lo l’zanav; v’hayita rak l’ma’alah v’lo tih’yeh l’mata.  “The Lord will make you the head, not the tail; you will always be at the top and never at the bottom…”  (Deut. 28:13)

The curses, beginning a few verses later, are the inverse of the blessings, and then some.  Included among the curses is the declaration that the stranger “…shall be the head and you shall be the tail.”  (28:44)

This is clearly where the Rosh Hashanah practice of eating the sheep or fish head comes from.  But what does it mean?

On its face, it seems fairly straightforward.  It is a metaphor for the economic and political success that Israel will experience if it behaves righteously.  Even today, we use the term “head” to refer to a leader, or the person at the top.  The “tail” is the follower. There is internal evidence in the Torah that the term refers specifically to being a creditor nation, rather than a debtor nation.

Mystical interpretations, however, identify hidden, spiritual meanings in the words of the Torah.  The Chassidic Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, author of the Torah commentary Kedushat Levi, suggests a deeper meaning.

He begins his commentary by asking why the Torah bothers to include the “tail” or the “bottom.”  Shouldn’t it have been enough to have said Un’tanekha Adonai l’rosh; v’hayita rak l’ma’alah—”The Lord will make you the head and you shall always be at the top”?  Adding “and not the tail,” and “never at the bottom” is superfluous.  And the Torah never wastes ink. Here is the hidden meaning.  Please bear with me.  This is kind of esoteric.

Reality, for human beings, is made up of three domains:  1.  The domain of abstract thought; 2.  The domain of speech; and 3.  The domain of action.  

Although Levi Yitzchak does not describe it this way, think about human consciousness.  Our experience of reality is no more than electrical signals passing between neurons in different parts of our brains.  For those electrical signals to be translated into awareness, what we might describe as thoughts or feelings, we need to perform an act of translation. My mind compares these patterns of electrical signals with my previous experiences of electrical signals.  At its most basic level, that is what language is.

I see a creature moving.  It has four legs, fur, and pointy ears.  It makes a noise.  My mind tells me, “this is a dog.”

Why doesn’t my mind say “cat?”  Not because I have seen this particular animal before, but because I have previous experiences with other creatures which have been defined as dogs. Language is the act of defining abstract experiences by comparing them with previous experiences.  Language also enables me to communicate my memory of those experiences to someone else.

After I have translated my abstract thoughts into language, I can then act.  I can manipulate the physical world around me.

We operate in all three domains at all times.  

The mystic sees the first domain, that of abstract thought, as the highest.  The essence of God lies somewhere beyond, but it is the closest a human being can become to God’s domain.  In Kabbalah, God’s essence is described as the Ein Sof, which literally means, “there is no end.”  Or, it cannot be defined.  God is completely abstract.  No word will capture God’s essence. The ultimate goal of the mystic is to attach oneself to God.  This can only be accomplished through the first domain, that of abstract thought.

Now we come back to the head and the tail, the top and the bottom.  Each of the three domains has a head and a tail.  A person who ascends to the head of a lower domain touches upon the tail of the next higher domain.  This is how Levi Yitzchak understands the Torah’s language of head and tail, top and bottom. When the Jewish people is at its best, it approaches the head of the highest domain, abstract thought, and is closest to God.

Let’s bring this back down to earth.  Through our actions, our speech, and our thought, each of us has the capacity to be better.  Actions, speech and thought are related.  As we improve one, we begin to improve the next.  

I work on my physical actions with the world around me: How I treat people, how I earn and spend my money, how I express compassion.  When I achieve success with my actions, it then leads to my speech.

My spiritual health is also about the words that come out of my mouth.  Controlling speech can be even more difficult than controlling behavior.  How hard is it to not gossip: to use language that builds people up rather than puts people down; to only read words online that make me grow?

When I purify my speech, that is when I can begin to purify my thoughts.

Moses describes the ultimate spiritual blessing:  “The Lord will make you the head, not the tail; you will always be at the top and never at the bottom…”  When the Israelites fulfill their covenantal obligations, they will achieve the closest possible relationship with God. Rabbi Levi says that this is not only a lesson for the nation, but for each of us.

As we approach the new year, we are taking stock.  It might be helpful to understand ourselves as being comprised of these three domains of thought, speech, and action.  The religious goal, indeed the human goal, is to improve on all three.

At the Rosh Hashanah meal, whether we eat a sheep’s head, a ram’s head, a salmon head, or a Swedish Fish head, may it symbolize for us that the year to come will be one in which we are the head, not the tail, and always at the top, never the bottom.”

Ki Teitzei 5779 – Don’t Promise Presents, Be In The Present

There is a common Hebrew expression: Bli neder, which means “without a vow.”  Bli Neder, I’ll pick you up tonight at 7.  Bli neder, I’ll bring the money that I owe you this Thursday.  Bli neder, I’ll have my High Holiday sermons done on time.

One of the laws in Parashat Ki Teitzei deals with nedarim, or vows.  A vow works likes this.  I’ve got something big coming up, and I feel like I am going to want God’s help.  Examples could include: the birth of a healthy child, victory in war, a successful business deal.

So I make a vow, promising to bring a specific gift to God.  It could be a sacrifice, or a donation of money, livestock, or grain to the Temple.  I might even vow to refrain from a particular activity, such as drinking wine or getting a haircut.

The Torah deals with the laws of vows in Parashat Ki Teitzei here in Deuteronomy as well as in an entire chapter at the end of the book of Numbers.  A number of Psalms express vows as well.

This morning’s parashah dedicates three verses to the topic.  The first verse warns that anyone who makes a vow had better fulfill it as quickly as possible.  No procrastinating, or else that person will incur guilt. The third verse emphasizes that any vow that crosses a person’s lips must be fulfilled.  The Torah provides no mechanism for nullifying a vow.

In between these two statements, the Torah provides a hint: “you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing.”  Wink. Wink. Note the double negative—no guilt if you don’t vow.  If we read into it a little deeper, the Torah is saying that since there is no obligation whatsoever for a person to make a vow, why would anyone put such a burden upon themselves?

Vows were apparently quite common in ancient times. There are several famous vows in the Bible.  The Judge Samson and the Prophet Samuel are both dedicated to a lifetime of service to God in fulfillment of vows made by their respective mothers. Thanks mom.

The Patriarch Jacob makes a vow in the book of Genesis when he is about to the leave the land of Canaan with nothing but the shirt on his back.  He declares that if God is with him, protecting him and eventually returning him home, then Jacob will be faithful to God and dedicate ten percent of his future earnings.

The most notorious vow in the Bible occurs in the book of Judges.  The Chieftain Yiftach, about to lead the Israelites in battle against the Ammonites, makes the following declaration to God:

“If You deliver the Ammonites into my hands, then whatever comes out the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering.”

Yiftach, it can be assumed, is thinking it will be a goat or chicken.

God is with Yiftach, and he defeats his enemies.  When the warrior returns home, who should run out of the house, dancing with a timbrel in her hands to celebrate her father’s great victory but Yiftach’s daughter, his only child.  Yiftach is crushed, but his daughter understands the seriousness of the vow, and insists that her father fulfill it.

The Rabbis are aware of vows as well—and they don’t like them.  Drawing on our portion, the Rabbis invent ways to nullify vows.  They dedicate an entire Tractate of Talmud to the subject.

At one point, the Talmudic Sage Rav Dimi takes it a step further, declaring that anyone who makes a vow is a sinner, even if that person fulfills it. He proves it from Ki Teitzei.  The Torah states “you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing.”  The Torah implies, therefore, that ‘you do incur guilt if you don’t refrain from vowing.’

Oy.  So many double negatives.

What’s the big problem with a vow?  The medieval commentator, Nachmanides, does not mince words.  God takes no pleasure in fools who make lots of vows.  The problem, he explains, is that unexpected things get in the way of us fulfilling so many of our commitments.  When it comes to something as serious as a vow, saying “I meant to do it, but circumstances made it impossible…” is not good enough.  There are no excuses.

Building on this this, the nineteenth century commentator, Samson Raphael Hirsch, says that we have enough trouble with our actions in the present.  A vow adds extra obligations for some future time, when we have no idea what unexpected events may get in our way.  “We should rest content with directing [our] actions every moment of [our] present existence, living it as it should be lived.  Whatever we will be called upon to do in the future constitutes our duty then, without undertaking it in the form of a vow.”

In just under four weeks, we will gather together for Yom Kippur.  At the very beginning, before the holiday actually begins, we will chant Kol Nidrei.  In fact, we name the entire service Kol NidreiKol Nidrei means “All vows.” It is not a prayer, but rather a legal statement.  We declare that all vows, oaths, pledges, and so on that we make from this Yom Kippur and next Yom Kippur are officially annulled.  Nidrana la nidrei.  “Our vows are not vows.”

When Kol Nidrei first appeared in the 9th century, the Rabbis didn’t like it.  But it was too popular with people.

The idea behind Kol Nidrei is that words matter.  Life is unpredictable.  I can never know for certain that I am going to be able to fulfill in the future the commitment that I make today.  But I want to be able to start the new year with a clean slate.  Kol Nidrei enables me to do that, to not be held back by all of my failures.  

Better, as Hirsch, advises, to live my life in the present as it should be lived.  With integrity and honesty.

Shoftim 5779 – One Hand Has Not Spilled This Blood

Parashat Shoftim begins with justice.  It sets up the ideal of wise uncorruptible judges whose decisions are respected.  A society that does this, promises the opening of our parashah, will thrive on its land.

At the end of Parashat Shoftim, we are presented with a case about this limits of justice. The case is called the eglah arufah, “The Broken-Necked Heifer.”  Here is the scenario: a murdered body is found in the open, outside of city limits, and the killer cannot be identified.  Instead of filing it away as an unsolved mystery, respected elders from the area go out and measure the distance from the body to the surrounding towns.  Whichever settlement is nearest to where the body was found must then perform a ritual. The elders of the town take a heifer that has never been worked or carried a yoke.  They bring it outside the town to a nahal eitan, a wadi that flows year-round, on land that is not cultivated.  There, they break the neck of the heifer. Then, in front of priests from the tribe of Levi who have gathered especially for the occcasion, the elders of the town wash their hands in the water of the stream, and make a declaration:

Yadeinu lo shaf’khu et hadam hazeh, v’einayim lo ra’u—”Our hands did not spill this blood, nor did our eyes see it done.  Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel.”

In so doing, they remove the bloodguilt.  In Hebrew, the expression is v’nikaper lahem hadam  That should sound familiar.  nikaper is from the same root as kaparah, which is the same as Yom Kippur.  It means atonement, and it refers to the washing away of sin that is attached to our souls.

This would seem to suggest that the inhabitants of the nearby town bear a certain degree of guilt.  Otherwise, what need would they have for atonement?

The Jerusalem Talmud offers two explanations, one from the Rabbis of the land of Israel, and the other from the Rabbis of Babylon.  In Israel, the Rabbis understand the ritual to be a reference to the murderer.  The elders declare: “the murderer never came through our town.  We never saw him.  He was not in our jail and we did not let him go free.”

The Rabbis of Babylonia suggest that the ritual refers to the victim.  “The victim never came through our town.  Otherwise, we would have surely taken care of him.  We would never have failed to offer him food, or ensure his safe passage.”

Both explanations involve the elders claiming that their communities are the kinds of communities that take responsibility for what happens in their town.  They do not allow criminals to walk the streets, and they do not neglect their obligations to take care of those who live on the margins.

In other words, they are saying, “we are fine, upstanding people.  People in our town do not do things like this.  We don’t let anyone slip through the cracks.  We didn’t do anything.  We didn’t see anything.”

This still does not solve the problem.  If they did everything they were supposed to do, why do they need atonement?

Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Bunim offers a creative explanation, suggesting that they may not be as innocent as they seem to claim. He points out a grammatical problem with one word in the declaration by the elders.  “Our hands did not spill this blood.”  yadeinu lo shaf’khu et hadam hazeh.

The problem is with the word shaf’khu, which is a verb meaning “spill.”  The Torah uses what the commentator Ibn Ezra describes as a really ancient spelling.  Instead of ending with a ו, it ends with a ה.  

שפכה

The vowels, according to the Masoretic text, are שָׁפְכֻה,
rendering the pronunciation shaf’khu.

If we read it like it is written in later Hebrew, it would say shaf’khah, which is singular, as in “our hand has not spilled this blood.”  Just one hand.  Not two. Why does this matter?

It is impossible for the elders to say, “everything we did, we did with both of our hands.”  Rather, they say, “What we did, we did with just one hand, because there will always remains some degree of guilt that we did not do enough.”

It’s such a clever insight on so many levels.  As human beings, we are self interested creatures.  We don’t like to admit guilt.  

A parent walks into the room and sees red crayon marks all over the walls.  She turns to her three year old, who is holding a red crayon, and asks, “Why are there red crayon marks on the wall?”

What does the three year old say?

“I didn’t do it.”

Our gut reaction is always to say “I didn’t do it.”

In the case of the eglah arufah, the crime has been committed nearby.  Suspicion naturally falls on those who are closest.  What is the declaration that they make? It’s the same as the three year old with a crayon.  “We didn’t do it.” But that does not mean that we don’t bear some responsibility.  We might not have been the ones who committed the murder, but can we really say that we were paying close enough attention to what was happening around us?

Did we take responsibility for our community—both by making sure it was safe, and by taking care of the people who needed help?  Did we open our eyes and take notice of the very individuals who tend to not get noticed? When tragedies occur, are those who claim to be innocent bystanders really innocent?

I was listening yesterday to a radio show on which people were calling in with reactions to the split verdict in the Ghost Ship fire.  People were rightfully angry about how such an unsafe situation could be allowed.  There was plenty of discussion about who should be held responsible, beyond just the two people who were put on trial. But of course, this is all after the fact—after 36 people died in a fire that should never have broken out.  But that is the way it goes with tragedies.  It is easy to cast blame after the fact.  

But maybe we should admit, as a society, that we never do everything we could have to build the kind of caring community that the Torah sets up as an ideal.

The Rabbis themselves acknowledge this.  In the second century, the Mishnah (Sotah 9:9) declares:  “When the murderers increased, the rite of the eglah arufah was abolished.”  The ritual itself became meaningless. Communities could not honestly claim that they had done everything that they could, or should have.

Parashat Shoftim begins with the ideal of justice.  It ends with a recognition of human imperfection.

Perhaps we should be honest enough to say, instead of “I didn’t do anything.  I didn’t see anything”  that “Maybe I looked the other way.  Perhaps I could have done more.”

That would be a great step for a society that strives to move towards justice.