Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Ki Tavo 5769 - HEADS OR TAILS

Every year when we get to the Torah readings of Ki Tavo and B'chukotai we rabbi types have to make a decision. That's something that rabbis usually try to avoid, but in this situation we're stuck. Are we going to discuss the blessings or the curses which dominate these parshiyot? To tell you the truth it's easier to go with the curses for two reasons. First they are so much longer that there's just more material. Secondly, we usually refer to these sections as the Tochachot or rebuke. The curses do seem to dominate our attention. Actually many commentaries explain that we read this material so close to Rosh Hashanah because a good dose of getting yelled at may better prepare us for the Days of Awe. Probably we decide what to write about based on our moods. I'm in a blessing mode, so let's look at one particular point in the blessings.

The blessings begin normally enough with run of the mill blessing stuff. Generally, there are three areas discussed, namely wealth, fertility and military success. However, at the end of the short blessings section there is a slightly new format. We're not just receiving the blessing we are protected from the reverse. We're told that we shall lend and not borrow, we shall be heads and not tails, and we shall be on top and not on the bottom (Deuteronomy 28:12 & 13). Why this format? Isn't it obvious that if we're on top we're not on the bottom? To answer this question I want to deal with one of the three examples which has for some reason I can't undersatnd, captured our imagination. Jewish tradition has become enamored of the heads or tails metaphor. There is a many centuries old custom of eating the head of a lamb (or fish) on Rosh Hashanah and quoting from our verse. I personally don't observe this custom, because my personal custom is not to eat anything that's looking back at me. Anyway, lets' try to understand this symbol.

First off there is an argument between our two most famous Aramaic translations of this verse. The more literal (and authoritative) translation of Onkelos (1st century CE) renders this expression as to be strong and not weak. It's interesting because uncharacteristically that is not a literal translation of the Hebrew words rosh (head) and zanav (tail). The more midrashic translation attributed to Rabbi Yonaton ben Uziel (who wrote a translation of the Prophets and Writings, but probably didn't write this one), translates this phrase as 'be kings and don't be commoners (hedyot).' Just one more general comment, it's clear from the context that we're talking about relatively physical issues, because the end of the verse says, "and you will be only at the top, and you will not be at the bottom." This last phrase seems to refer to spiritual issues.

Based upon the two translations I quoted there seems to be two approaches to this verse. The more obvious is that of the Rabbi Yonaton who describes head as king. I say that this is more obvious, because of the context. The previous verses mention other peoples who will be influenced by the Jewish nation. This is sort of a reference to the blessing given to the nation before the revelation at Sinai when God told us that we would be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6). We will minister to the world in a leadership role. Our kingship will be over the world. And therefore the expression that we will be kings and not commoners means that in this future blessed era, not one of us will be seen as common or coarse. The position of Jews in the world will be that of universal respect and honor. I assume, because the world will recognize that the general state of blessedness was precipitated by Jewish influence on the psyche of the world. We will have fulfilled our Light Unto the Nations role. It's almost as if that on that day when the United Nations decisively bans all warfare, they'll look across First Avenue and see the Isaiah Wall and proclaim that they did this as a result of the Jewish influence on the world. A slightly different reality from the present one at that august body.

Let's now turn to Onkelos who uncharacteristically took a less literal approach and translated heads and tail as strong and weak. What's he trying to teach us? I think that he's hinting at a more personal and individual scenario. The verse isn't describing the entire Jewish nation it's portraying each particular Jew personality. I also believe that he's suggesting a very important idea. Every one has a particular strength, talent, or contribution which is unique to that person. Everybody is the best at something. First of all, we must all recognize this. After we understand that we have a unique role to play, we must discover that special aptitude. For some of us it's very obvious. Some gifts just jump out at us, like excellence in sports, music or academics. For others it's not so easy. The distinctive abilities which develop in our youth are easier to spot, but those that emerge in adult life take an effort to identify. Skill in areas like public speaking or negotiation quite often only appear in adult life. However, everyone's challenge is to develop their particular skill set, and donate its services to the world.

Now, I can answer my initial question about the repetitive nature of the verse. Once I've discovered my happy thought, I can never view myself as a tail ever again. Now that I have discovered my potential contribution to the world I'm an eternally powerful personality. Since I'm a donor I'm not intimidated anymore by the other benefactors. I'm a full-fledged member of the contributor clan, and there is no lack of self esteem in accepting from others, because I'm giving, too. I'll never see myself as a tail or, God forbid, an eternal loser.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) pointed out in the first decade of the nineteenth century that everyone is a giant in some way. Maybe he discovered that truth from our verse. But he's right, and the sooner we each discover it, the sooner we can do some serious wagging, rather than feeling wagged.