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.”

Just One Shabbat – Ki Tissa 5776

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, in his Torah commentary Kedushat Levi, cites a Talmudic midrash.  “If only Israel would keep two Sabbaths according to their laws – they would be redeemed immediately.” (BT Shabbat 118b) But then, Levi Yitchak cites a second midrash, which appears in Exodus Rabbah, as well as in the Palestinian Talmud.  “If Israel would keep the Sabbath properly, even for one day, the son of David would come.”  (Exodus Rabbah 25:12)  So which is it, one Shabbat or two?

By observing one Shabbat correctly, Levi Yitzchak suggests that a person gains spiritual strength and Divine influence that helps him or her to continue serving God through the subsequent week.  After six days of the week serving God, it becomes quite easy to observe the following Shabbat properly.  And so there is kind of domino effect, catalyzed by the observance of that first Shabbat.  Each religious act inspires the next, eventually leading to redemption.

Levi Yitzchak then points to a hint that appears in this morning’s Torah portion.  It is a passage that might sound familiar:  V’shamru v’nei Yisrael et haShabbat, la’asot et ha Shabbat l’dorotam b’rit olam.  “The Israelite people shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time.”  (Exodus 31:16)  Why does the verse mention the observance of Shabbat twice?  The first reference – V’shamru v’nei Yisrael et haShabbat – refers to the first Shabbat.  When Israel observes it properly, it leads to the second reference – la’asot et ha Shabbat – the following week.

In these two midrashim and his analysis of them, Levi Yitzchak puts habit formation into spiritual terms.  It is not only that the experience of Shabbat is so compelling that a single proper observance of the Day of Rest leads to a lasting commitment, but also that a spiritual transformation takes place.

He explains how the observance of only 14% of the week as a Sabbath can elevate our experience of the other 86% of the week.  It reminds me of another passage in the Talmud that describes how the great Sages, Shammai and Hillel, used to prepare for Shabbat.  (BT Beitzah 16)  Shammai was wealthy.  He did not struggle to make ends meet.  Every day of the week, he would keep his eyes open for things that he could purchase to make the observance of the upcoming Shabbat more special.  If he was walking through the marketplace and saw a nice-looking animal that would make a great main course for his Shabbat dinner, he would buy it on the spot.  If, the next day, he saw an even nicer-looking animal, he would buy the new one and eats the previous day’s purchase for dinner that night.  In so doing Shammai ate in honor of Shabbat every day of his life.  Inspired by his example, the School of Shammai used to say “From the first day of the week [prepare] for the Sabbath.”

Hillel was different.  He was not a man of wealth.  He could not afford daily upgrades.  Hillel did not scour the marketplace searching for the nicest-looking treats – probably because he could not afford it.  Instead, according to Rashi, he had faith in God that by the end of the week, something would turn up that would enable him to properly honor Shabbat.  In the meantime, he treated each day as an opportunity to honor God.  Later, his students would repeat his saying, “Blessed be the Lord, day by day.”

I do not think that one approach is necessarily better than the other.  They each emphasize different qualities and probably the expression of different personality traits.  Shammai liked to plan ahead.  As the week progressed, his excitement and anticipation for Shabbat must have grown tremendously.  The accumulation of material goods over the course of the week were matched by a gradual increase in his spiritual and emotional anticipation.  For Shammai, Shabbat was the day to honor God and achieve communion with his Creator.

In contrast, Hillel was a man who lived in the moment.  Reflecting both his poverty and his personality, he did not allow the uncertainty of tomorrow interfere with his ability to appreciate today.  It is quite a remarkable quality.  Shabbat is a day when we focus on the sanctity of time rather than space, of relationships rather than things.  Heschel calls Shabbat a “palace in time.”  It is a day when we can be focused on the present, and set aside our baggage from the past and our concerns for the future.  Hillel seems to have been able to extend this orientation to the world to the other six days of the week as well.

Prior to the modern age, most Jews were quite poor.  Shabbat dinner was by far the fanciest meal of the week.  Meat was prohibitively expensive, so most people ate vegetables for the majority of their meals.  It was only on Shabbat, if they could afford it, that Jews might be able to serve a little bit of meat or fish for dinner, along with wine and challah.  My grandmother, growing up in Ukraine, told stories of her family not being able to afford eggs.  To give the challah its golden color, her mother would use used teabags.

Contrast this with our experience today.  While we may make the effort to prepare a nice meal on Shabbat, with gourmet food, wine, and challah, served on a tablecloth and china if we have it, the reality is that it is not a financial stretch for most of us.  If we wanted to have a similarly fancy dinner on Monday or Tuesday night, we could probably do it without difficulty.

How would our experience of Shabbat be different if it were more of a struggle?  If, at the beginning of the week on Sunday, we were not sure whether we would be able to afford meat or fish by Friday night?

Look at the photograph from 1890 of a Jewish man on Ludlow Street in New York City preparing for Shabbat in a coal cellar.  Observe his tattered clothing, the grime on the walls and on his face.  Look at the crooked tablecloth.  And now look at the challah.  Even though it is a 1200black and white photograph, the challah appears almost golden in contrast to its surroundings.  How does this man experience Shabbat?  When the stars come out on Saturday night and he prepares for another week, what aspects of his experience stay with him, and how does he anticipate the day of rest that awaits him in six more days?

Imagine being of the school of Shammai.  Despite daily struggles, we constantly look ahead and plan for a glorious end of the week.  Even though it is the seventh day that is singularly holy, our anticipation of it causes its quality to spread to each of the other days.  As a result, each meal becomes like a Shabbat dinner, regardless of what is on the menu.

Or imagine being of the school of Hillel.  Each day, in and of itself, is a gift and an opportunity to serve God.  The special holiness of Shabbat can be experienced on each of the other days as well.  But Shabbat serves as the paradigm for living with an awareness of God’s Presence in our lives.

Both approaches capture the connection between one Shabbat, the workweek that follows, and the next Shabbat, as Levi Yitzchak describes.

Speaking personally, I have a bit of Shammai and Hillel in me.  My week is colored by a memory of last Shabbat and an anticipation of the Shabbat to come.  Each week is certainly a build-up to Shabbat.  As a Rabbi, it is probably easier for me to orient my life towards the Day of Rest than for other careers.  On the other hand, I have professional responsibilities on Shabbat.  Nevertheless, I look forward to the moment just before lighting candles when I power off my laptop and cell phone.  If my sermon that week is not especially polished, it does not matter because there is nothing else I can do about it.  As soon as the candles are lit, I truly do experience the peace of Shabbat.

I strive to take that experience of Shabbat’s holiness with me into the week.  Shabbat is a day on which I have uninterrupted time with my family.  There are no screens tempting me away from being present with my children or my spouse.  We have, quite literally, hours of focused time together.   That holiness of relationship, the slowing down and appreciation of the life I am living right now, is something that I try to bring to the other days of the week, no doubt with difficulty.

The midrash suggests that if every Jew observed Shabbat properly – either once or twice – Mashiach would come immediately and bring redemption to the world.  I am not in favor of trying to guess when Mashiach will get here, but I can imagine the effect on our world if more of us found a way to observe Shabbat properly.  To recognize, like Shammai, that the holiest day of the week is the one on which we take a break from exercising our mastery and dominance of the physical world around us.  To strive, like Hillel, to bring the awareness of God that we gain on Shabbat to the other six days of the week.

If we could do that, I suspect that our world would be a little bit closer to redemption.