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Like a Head and Not Like a Tail

September 5, 2020

Among the array of symbolic delicacies of which many of us will partake on Rosh Hashana eve is the head of something. For many it’s a fish, but whatever it might be, it’s accompanied by a prayer that originates from Parshas Ki Tavo. “שנהיה לראש ולא לזנב, that we should be a head and not a tail,” we will proclaim! And those around us will answer, “Amen!”

Parshas Ki Tavo is replete with blessings and curses. The basic message is that if we do good then we will be blessed, and if G-d forbid not, then the opposite can happen. One of the potential blessings that the Torah mentions is, “ונתנך ה' לראש ולא לזנב, and Hashem will make you the head and not the tail. (Devarim 28:13)” Ramban wonders why it’s necessary for the Torah to mention both that we will be the head and that we won’t be the tail. Isn’t it a given that if we are the head, then we aren’t the tail? And if we would be the tail, then wouldn’t it follow that we surely wouldn’t be the head? Why does the Torah add what seems to be unnecessary words?

Ramban answers that indeed it is possible to be both a head and a tail. He uses the might and power of nations as an example. One particular country or nation might be very strong and considered to be higher than or above many others, thus making it a head. But that very same country or nation may also find that it is not as powerful as some other mighty nations, thus making it, relative to them, a tail! In fact, every single country other than the absolute strongest and the absolute weakest will find that it is a head above some countries, and a tail below others. The blessing which Hashem guarantees is that if we the Jewish people act as we are supposed to, we will not just be a head, but we also won’t be a tail! We will stand above all others, at the absolute head, and no one will look down at us as their tail.

But while we certainly await the day when the Jewish people will be mighty enough to protect ourselves and our land fully, and to maintain peace among the world, I don’t believe that Ramban, or the Torah, is referring merely to physical strength. Yeshayahu prophesies that, “ונתתיך לאור גוים להיות ישועתי עד קצה הארץ, and I [Hashem] will make you a light of the nations so that My salvation may reach the ends of the earth. (Isaiah 49:6)” Our mission is to be a guiding light to the world, to teach and model morality, kindness, and proper human values. Our goal is to spread awareness of Hashem all the way, as Yeshayahu writes, to the ends of the earth. Our ambition is to raise, lead, and inspire.

Yet, this is difficult. Because even as we seek to lead and we strive to act as the head of the moral head of the world, it’s challenging to not also act as a tail. We say and we know that we should be confident in the Torah's values, yet sometimes we instinctively look elsewhere for guidance. We know that it’s ok to act, dress, and speak differently than those around us; after all, aren’t we supposed to be the head? We shouldn’t be bothered or tempted by the way others choose to conduct themselves! And yet, sometimes it’s uncomfortable to feel different. We can simultaneously feel empowered to lead and also tempted to follow.

Our primary goal never has been, and never will be, to be physically or militarily dominant. Physical success is merely a useful means to spiritual freedom and growth. This Rosh Hashana, when we ask Hashem to make us the head and not the tail, let’s focus on what’s truly important. Hashem, I want to do what’s right, and I want to be a guiding light to my family, my community, and the whole world. Please give me the strength and the will to do what’s right, to lead with actions, and to serve my place in the אור לגויים, in the nation that bears the responsibility of being the head, a light and a guide to the world around us.

Good Shabbos!

Rabbi Fox

Wed, October 27 2021 21 Cheshvan 5782