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.”

Don’t Take Time and Space for Granted – Ki Tavo 5778

The universe is inconceivably big.  It has a diameter of 91 billion light years.  In miles, that is approximately 54, followed by 22 zeros.  The universe is comprised of between 100 and 200 billion galaxies.  Our Milky Way Galaxy has about 100 billion stars.  The closest star to the earth is a little bit more than four light years away.

Planet Earth has a number of rare features that have made the development of life possible.  Moving tectonic plates enable the formation and maintenance of an atmosphere.  The climate is not too hot and not too cold.  The moon is unusually large, blocking just enough solar radiation to allow genetic mutation to occur at a reasonable pace.  Earth’s orbit around the sun is pretty close to circular.  The sun itself is larger than most stars, and smaller than others.  In so many ways, the earth is “just right.”

The earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago.  Life came into existence around 4 billion years ago.  More than 99% of all species that ever lived on Earth are now extinct.  Homo Sapiens emerged about 300,000 years ago.  Our ancestors began to develop modern ways of thinking, reflected by the use of complex tools, cave painting, big game hunting, and ritual burial.

3,800 years ago, Abraham heard the voice of God blessing him with the promise of land and offspring.  3,300 years ago, Moses led our people out of slavery in Egypt to the land of Israel.  Solomon built the Temple.  It was destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again over the next thousand years, sending our ancestors into exile.  That exile ended in 1948, and here we are…

…residing in the most prosperous country in the history of the planet, and for all we know, the universe.  Here in Silicon Valley, we have a perfect climate.  We have air conditioning.  In about 45 minutes, we will sit down to have lunch together, and there will probably be enough food for us to go back for seconds and thirds.

How incredibly unlikely it is that each one of us is here right now.

Is there an appropriate response to the unfathomably minute possibility of my existence?

If such a response exists, I am not sure what it is.

We humans have a built-in tendency to take our lives for granted.  This is one of Moses’ concerns as he prepares to make his final goodbyes to the Israelites, whom he has led for the previous forty years.  Over the course of Deuteronomy, he has been delivering his final series of instructions to those who will be entering the Promised Land without him.

In this morning’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, Moses lays out a few ritual ceremonies that the Israelites will have to observe.

The first of those ceremonies will not be performed by the generation that stands before him.  True, they will enter the land, but it will take several more generations until their descendants complete its conquest, and even longer before they build the Temple.

That is the time to which Moses refers.  Israelite farmers will plant their seeds and harvest their crops.  When the first fruits of those crops come in, the farmer will place it in a basket and bring it to the Temple in Jerusalem, identified by Moses as “the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name.”  The farmer will present the fruit to the priest on duty and make a declaration:

I acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us.”  (Deut. 26:3)

The priest will take the basket from him, and the farmer will continue:

My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us . . . and the LORD heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The LORD freed us from Egypt . . . He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me.  (Deut. 26: 5–10)

This speech integrates themes of agriculture with history.  This is one of the great theological innovations of the Torah: God is both the Creator of the natural world, as well as the God of history.

We see this throughout the Torah, as the various agricultural holidays are infused with historical significance.  Passover, the Spring festival to celebrate the beginning of the agricultural season, is also the holiday celebrating freedom from slavery.  Succot, the Fall harvest festival, also commemorates the booths that our ancestors dwelt in while they were in the wilderness.

This is what Moses wants to ensure that future Israelites will remember.  He wants future Israelites to know:  My ancestors were once slaves in Egypt.  God brought them out, enabling me to be born in freedom.  I am here now because of God’s promise to my ancestors.  Without them, I would not be in this land, this land that is so prosperous that it flows with milk and honey. 

Notice that the farmer never makes any reference to all of his hard work: the early mornings planting and weeding; the backbreaking labor; the difficult journey from his home to the Temple.  That is not the point.  The point is for him to acknowledge everything that has happened to bring him to this blessed moment.  

Moses knows that future Israelites will have a tendency to take two things for granted.  One, that he lives in a fortuitous time period.  Two, that he lives in a fertile place.

In other words, Moses worries that the farmer will take time and space for granted.

It is not just ancient Israelite farmers who tended to take their existence in time and space for granted.  We all do.  When we are successful, we tend to overweight the impact of our own hard work and underweight the countless factors outside of our control that made our success possible.

The purpose of much of Jewish ritual is to alert us to the many blessings that we enjoy.  In our daily prayers, we acknowledge God as the Creator of the universe, the heavenly bodies, and the daily rising and setting of the sun and moon.  

We acknowledge the incredible way in which the human body is put together.  We give thanks for knowledge and understanding.  We praise God for moments of our ancestors’ redemption, without which we would not be alive.

Before eating a piece of bread, we recite a blessing indicating that it is God who “brings forth bread from the earth.”  Even though this is not literally where bread comes from, we remind ourselves of the many natural miracles that must occur so that human beings can produce food that is delicious and nutritious.  

People who express gratitude are happier, and experience life as more meaningful.  I suspect, as well, that those who are conscious of how undeservedly blessed they are tend to behave towards others with more generosity and compassion.

So, is there an appropriate response to the unfathomably minute possibility of our existence?  Let’s start with simply trying to acknowledge it:

The universe has conspired to bring me to this moment in time and space.  And for that I am grateful.

Shut Up and Listen – Ki Tavo 5773

Ernesto Sirolli is an Italian aid worker. In a Ted talk, which is viewable online,*1* he tells the story of his first project in Africa, in the 1970’s. He was part of a group of Italians who decided to teach Zambian people how to grow food. So they went to Southern Zambia to a beautiful, fertile valley that led down into the Zambesi River, and they brought a bunch of Italian seeds, intending to teach the locals how to grow tomatoes and zucchini and so on.
The locals, of course, had absolutely no interest in doing that, so the Italians paid them to come and work. Sometimes they showed up. The Italians were amazed that, in such a fertile valley, there was no agriculture.
Instead of asking the Zambesi about it, the Italians said “Thank God we are here to save the Zambian people from starvation.”
Everything grew beautifully – better than in Italy, in fact. “Look how easy agriculture is,” they told the Zambians.
One night, when the tomatoes were big and ripe, two hundred hippos came up out of the river and ate every last vegetable that they had planted.
The Italians said to the Zambians: “My God! The hippos!”
And the Zambians said: “Yes. That’s why we have no agriculture here.”
“Why didn’t you tell us?”
“You never asked.”
Sometimes, it pays to listen.
It is the last day of Moses’ life, and he knows it. The Israelites are assembled before him in the Plains of Moab on the Eastern Side of the Jordan River. This is the next generation, the children of those who had left slavery in Egypt. They have all been born in the wilderness.
Now, they are poised to enter the land of Israel. Moses, knowing the end is near, has been giving a series of speeches to the people. He has reviewed the history of the Exodus. He has presented the laws, including those that will be applicable once they enter the Promised Land. And now, in this morning’s Parshah, he pronounces a series of blessings and curses which will befall them depending on how they uphold the terms of the covenant with God.
Moses turns to the people and says:
Hasket ush’ma yisrael
“Silence! Hear, O Israel!”*2*
This theme of listening has been a recurring one throughout the Book of Deuteronomy. Moses tells the people many to listen times. Our most famous prayer, the Shema, is from the Book of Deuteronomy. So it is not unusual that Moses tells the people to listen. What is unusual is that he tells them to shut up first. Hasket ush’ma. “Silence, and listen…” It is the only time in the entire Bible that the word hasket appears. When a word appears only once like this, scholars call it a hapax legomenon. As the medieval Rabbi and linguist Ibn Ezra comments, “its explanation is according to its context, for it has no parallels [in Scripture].”*3*
We are left with a question: If the idea of listening is so prevalent in Deuteronomy, why, on this single occasion, does Moses feel he needs to first tell the Israelites to be quiet? To answer that, let’s look at what he tells them to listen to this time:
hayom hazeh nih’yeta l’am ladonai elohekha
“Today you have become the people of the Lord your God.
Is this true? Is this day, at the end of the fortieth year of the Israelites’ wanderings, the day that they finally become God’s people? Didn’t that already happen a long time ago – at the time of the Exodus or at Mt. Sinai?
The great medieval commentator Rashi explains Moses’ instructions as follows: “You should consider every day as the day on which you entered into a covenant with [God].”*4*
Moses is not speaking just to the Israelites born in the wilderness. He speaks to all of us. He challenges all of us to treat “today” as the day on which we enter into a covenant with God.
Perhaps that explains why he tells the people to be quiet before he tells them to listen. Back at Sinai, they did not need to be told to shut up. There was a cacophonous sound and light show that overwhelmed the senses – earthquakes, thunder, lightning, fire, smoke, the sound of the shofar. Believe me, they were paying attention.
Forty years later, in Deuteronomy, there is no miraculous revelation by God. There are only words. In order to listen, to really listen, to what Moses is saying, the people must first stop talking. Only then can they, and we, open ourselves up to Torah and become the people of God.
“Shut up and listen!” he says. If we want to be a people of God, we have to stop making noise. We have to stop projecting ourselves and our egos out into the world.
In a world that is full of the noise of our own making, this is an important reminder. We tend to spend a lot more time talking than listening. When we do that, when we shut ourselves off from what the other has to say, we put up barriers. It is impossible to be in a relationship with someone to whom we do not listen.
I did a search online on the expression “Shut Up and Listen.” There were articles that advocated this approach for salespeople. We can be much more effective when we pause to listen to the customer say what the customer actually wants instead of telling the customer what he or she wants. Makes sense.
A self help column spoke about the importance of listening to criticism from other people. Rather than arguing back, it advocated simply saying “thank you,” and trying to really understand the critique. That is an important strategy that can help us learn about ourselves. Also makes sense.
And I found the story of the Italian aid worker in Zambia that I told earlier. The reason that more than one trillion dollars of Western aid money in Africa has done far more harm than good over the past fifty years is that most well-intentioned do-gooders don’t stop to ask people what they actually need. They would do well to shut up and listen.
While all of this may be true, that being quiet and listening may help us improve our sales numbers, or better ourselves, or help impoverished societies, Moses is getting at something deeper. He teaches us that the secret of being in an authentic relationship with another, whether it is a relationship with another human being, or a relationship with God, lies in our ability to shut up and listen.
Silence is more than just the absence of words. To be silent, we have to let go of our defense mechanisms. We have to stop acting as if “the world was created for me” and start acting like “I am but dust and ashes.” When we force down our ego, we create an open space that can be filled by another.
To be in a true relationship is to be in a covenantal relationship, which carries obligations.
The French Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas said that we encounter God when we truly look into another person’s face. Our self falls away and there is only the commanding Presence of the Other. Being in authentic relationship with another person is wrapped up with being in authentic relationship with God.
While there are many aspects of silence, it does come down to words. Words are our primary tools for projecting ourselves into the world. What if we only had a limited number of words that we could use each day?
The American poet Jeffrey McDaniel ponders this in his poem, The Quiet World.*5*

In an effort to get people to look
into each other’s eyes more,
and also to appease the mutes,
the government has decided
to allot each person exactly one hundred
and sixty-seven words, per day.

When the phone rings, I put it to my ear
without saying hello. In the restaurant
I point at chicken noodle soup.
I am adjusting well to the new way.

Late at night, I call my long distance lover,
proudly say I only used fifty-nine today.
I saved the rest for you.

When she doesn’t respond,
I know she’s used up all her words,
so I slowly whisper I love you
thirty-two and a third times.
After that, we just sit on the line
and listen to each other breathe.

Just imagine what it would be like.

*2*Deuteronomy 27:9
*3*Ibn Ezra on Deut. 27:9
*4*Rashi on Deut. 27:9
*5*Listen to author read the poem at: