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.”

Let Us Make a Name for Ourselves – Noach 5775

According to the Torah, all human beings are descended from Adam and Eve.  Then, after humanity is wiped out in the flood, all humans are descended from Noah and his wife.  Why is it so important to specify that we all share a common ancestor?  According to the Mishnah, it is so that no one can say another, my father is better than yours.  We are all descended from the first Primordial Human, Adam, whom the Torah describes as created in God’s image.  (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) Thus, equality and freedom are central concepts in our tradition.

Soon after creation, however, humanity starts to move away from this ideal.  Within ten generations, human society has become so corrupt and violent that God simply cannot take it any more.  God looks at all of the wickedness and violence, sees the way that human beings have corrupted the entire planet, and becomes sad and regretful for having ever made humanity.

So God brings a flood, appointing Noah and his family to be the sole human survivors, protectors of each animal species, and progenitors of human life in the new world that will follow.

What will change this time?  Presumably, things will be different in Creation 2.0.  Indeed, God plans ahead for the change, giving rules to humanity this time so that they do not repeat the same mistakes.

But has anything really changed?

God knows that Noah’s offspring will be no better than their ante-diluvian ancestors.

After Noah exits the ark, he offers a sacrifice.  That’s a good start.  God appreciates the gesture, and declares “Never again will I doom the earth because of man…”  (Genesis 8:21)

Fantastic!  Is it because God is so pleased with Noah’s piety?  Not exactly.

The Lord continues, “…since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth.”  Nature or nurture?  It’s nature.  Humans have the same capacity for evil that they have always had.  It is part of our D.N.A.  Nevertheless, God makes a commitment to let the experiment continue, acknowledging that it an occasional intervention may be warranted.

Within a few generations, humanity seems to be heading down a familiar path.  The Torah introduces us to major characters in the generations following the flood and occasionally shares brief notes or stories about them.  We meet Nimrod, son of Cush, son of Ham, son of Noah.  Nimrod is described as “the first man of might on earth.  He was a mighty hunter before the Lord.”  (Genesis 10:8-9)  He built a kingdom in Shinar, otherwise known as Babylonia, otherwise known as Mesopotamia, otherwise known as present-day Iraq and Syria.

Tradition identifies Nimrod as the first King.  How does he ascend to that position?  The medieval commentator Abravanel points to Nimrod’s hunting prowess.  People see how powerful he is to be able to defeat lions and bears, and stand in awe of him.  When Nimrod turns his attention towards his fellow human beings, he easily vanquishes and conquers them, thus building the world’s first empire.  With empire comes progress.  The development of political life, technological innovation, human wisdom – all are made possible by civilization.

But Nimrod and his generation go astray, according to commentators, pursuing progress for its own sake, rather than as a means to a greater good.  Power begets power, as the saying goes.  Where the violence and oppression before the flood had been chaotic and random, now it is state-sponsored.

The Torah continues with the well-known story of the Tower of Babel.  At this time, we are told, everyone on earth speaks the same language and lives in the same place.  Humanity has gained the ability to control the environment in which it lives.  From their place in the lowlands, people figure out how to take mud, shape it, apply fire, and make bricks.  They now have the ability to make life better, safer, and more meaningful.  They can build structures to protect them from the elements, buildings to store food, schools to learn, libraries to store knowledge, and temples in which to worship.  So what do they do with this technological innovation, this amazing new ability?

“Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky…” they say to one another.  For what purpose?  Efficient apartment dwelling?  A university?  A hospital?  A town hall?  A sanctuary?  No.  Those are not what the people are interested in.  They are not going to use their technological abilities to serve a greater good.    Their aims are more self-centered.

V’na’aseh lanu shem.  “Let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky to make a name for ourselves.”  (Genesis 11:4)

They want to build it as a timeless monument to human progress.

A midrash teaches that the tower gets to be so high that it takes a really long time and a lot of effort to travel from the bottom to the top.  Whenever a brick would fall, the workers would collapse to the ground and weep, “Woe is us.  When will another brick be hauled up to take its place?”  But when a person falls, nobody pays any attention.  (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 24)

Why do they build the tower?  Because they can.  This is the end result of what Nimrod introduces to the world.  It is a description of a totalitarian society in which the state is everything and the individual is nothing.  There is no God in such a situation.

God looks down at this rising edifice to human power and sees that something must change.  This is not what God had intended.  So God babbles their tongues, and they can no longer understand one another.  The building project grinds to a halt.  Then God scatters the people over the face of the earth.

On one level, The Tower of Babel is an origin story that explains why the earth contains so many people with different languages, cultures, and beliefs.  But it is also a story with lessons about human nature, politics, and equality.

Judaism is highly skeptical of political leaders.  The idea that power corrupts seems to be ingrained in the Torah.  Deuteronomy’s laws of Kings are all about limiting the powers and rights of the monarch.  Kings and societies are judged not by how much land they acquire or taxes they collect, but by how the most marginal people in society are treated.  Why are political leaders so suspect?  Because politics inevitably leads to inequality.  A subject, by definition, is not equal to the king.

In our democracy, ideally, the power of government is derived from the people, and there are checks and balances to prevent any one person or group from gaining too much power.  In reality, we know that American society has gross inequalities, whether in money, political power, educational opportunities, health care access, and so on.

The Tower of Babel suggests that the solution to the problem of too much power is diversity.  People and nations need to be free to pursue meaningful lives in different ways.  Our tradition recognizes this as ideal.

The Messianic future envisioned by Judaism does not imagine that all nations will one day unite and become a single people.  That has never been our vision.  In the Messianic Age, it is simply that all peoples on earth will recognize God as the Creator and ruler.  It is in this morning’s parashah that the Rabbis identify the seven Noachide commandments; seven laws given to all humanity that form the backbone of ethics.  As long as a people abides by those essential norms, it should be free and encouraged to go its own way, while respecting other peoples’ rights to do the same.

A thirteenth century Spanish commentator, Menachem Meiri, in considering the Christians and Muslims of his day, declares that as long as they are gedurim b’darchei hadat, bound by the laws of morality and justice, they are to be considered as equal to Jews in all respects.  That is a fairly remarkable position for that that time and place.

Elsewhere in our texts, we are taught that the righteous of all the nations earn a share in the world to come.  So you see, Judaism advocates a healthy respect for diversity.  There are other ways to worship God and other ways to organize societies other than the Jewish way, and that is a good thing.  This is a lesson from the Tower of Babel.

It is also good from a practical perspective.  A society’s embrace of diversity and pluralism serves as a check against oppression and violence.  It is why a country’s freedom is typically measured by factors like religious freedom, the fairness of elections, the existence of civil liberties, freedom of the press, and the absence of corruption.

In every age, there are Nimrod’s who seek to suppress freedom and deny equality.  Israel’s Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, has been in Washington D.C. this week.  I heard an interview in which he was asked about ISIS.  He predicted that the Middle East is never going to return to what it was a few years ago.  The borders of countries like Iraq, Syria, and Iran, were drawn up arbitrarily after World War One.  The countries themselves were held together for almost a century by totalitarian dictators from minority tribes who forcefully imposed themselves on their populations, much like Nimrod thousands of years ago, who exercised power for the sake of power.  But these artificial nations were comprised of diverse peoples with different cultures, religions, and languages.  In order to maintain power, that diversity had to be suppressed.  The violence and terror we are witnessing today is driven by religiously-fueled zealots who also reject the value of diversity, deny equality, and subjugate all who come under their authority.

We have been watching in horror as ISIS and other militant Islamic groups fight to create a caliphate, an empire, that would oppress anyone who does not conform to their narrow belief system.  It is a scary, totalitarian ideology.  How ironic that the story of the Tower of Babel took place smack dab in the middle of the war zone!

If we learn one thing from the Tower of Babel, let it be that God wants diversity.  The Mishnah cited above regarding humanity’s shared common ancestor (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) also teaches that when a person kills another, it is as if s/he has destroyed the entire world.  It goes on to explain that when people mint coins from a coin press, every single coin comes out exactly the same.  Not so with God, for God stamped each person with the seal of Adam, and yet no two people are alike.  Thus each person is obligated to say, “For my sake was the world created.”

People of faith would do well to remember this.