Heads or Tails – Parashat Ki Tavo 2011

Several years ago, I was speaking with a friend who had just begun college at an Ivy League university.  He was the kind of guy who was destined for the Ivies – incredibly smart, creative, and talented.  In fact, he was accustomed to being the best and the brightest wherever he went.  But for the first time in his life, he was miserable at school.  And I’ll never forget what he said to me: “There are just so many smart people here,” he said. “I feel dumb, at least by comparison.  I feel intimidated.  I feel slow.  For the first time in my life, I’m not at the top of the class.”  He paused, pensively, and then delivered the sentiment that was hardest for him to say:  “It’s as if for my whole life, I was a big fish in a little sea, and now I feel like a little fish in a big sea.”

Many of us face this same struggle at one point or another.  We find ourselves in situations in which we feel inferior, in which we feel like little fish in a big sea.  In those moments, we hear more loudly the internal voice that constantly tries to convince us, “You’re small. You’re worthless.”  We try to quiet that voice by seeking out ways in which we can feel bigger.  Many of us choose schools, careers, houses, even friends and spouses, based on this desire.  But almost inevitably, we find ourselves in situations in which we hear that voice resonating more loudly.

Our aversion for this feeling is the reason that, on Rosh Hashanah, many Jews have the custom of eating an animal’s head and offering the prayer, yehi ratzon mil’fanekha Adonai Eloheinu v’Elohei Avoteinu She’ni’hiyeh l’rosh v’lo l’zanav / May it be your will, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors, that in the coming year we should become the head and not the tail.

Similarly, in today’s parashah, parashat Ki Tavo, Moses describes this phenomenon as the feeling of being at the tail, rather than being at the head.  Moses knows that many of us, at one point or another, have felt this way.  Moses understands that many of us have a desire to be the head, to be the best, to be better-than.  And so, in our parashah, when Moses recounts the blessings due to the Children of Israel if they observe the commandments, Moses says “u’netankha Adonai l’rosh v’lo l’zanav / God will make you the head and not the tail, v’hayita rak l’ma’alah v’lo t’hiyeh l’mata / And you shall only be above, and you will never be below.”

This blessing in our parashah (or, I should say, the promise of this blessing), that we will become the head and not the tail, reflects a deep yearning many of us have to feel superior.  And our tradition offers us two important insights, precisely to address this yearning:

Number one – Not all heads and tails are equal.  Wouldn’t you rather be the tail of some animals than the head of others?  Sometimes, isn’t it more worthwhile to be a small part of something extraordinary than it is to be the head of something ordinary?  By giving ourselves permission at times to be the tail rather than the head, by strengthening ourselves to overcome our egos, by enabling ourselves to be a little fish in a big sea, we can push ourselves to grow in unparalleled ways.

It’s like the old showbiz saying goes: “There are no small roles, only small actors.”  We might find ourselves in situations in which we feel small.  But we have a choice in those moments: we can shrink and run away, telling ourselves that our role in those scenarios is too small.  Alternatively, we can quiet the voice that makes us feel small.  We can remind ourselves that our greatness lies not in our size, position, or status, but in the fact that we are created b’tzelem u-d’moot.  We are reflections of the Divine Image with infinite value.  We can shine in extraordinary ways, even when we are playing a small role.

Take Scottie Pippen, for example.  Scottie Pippen is a hall of fame basketball player, one of the best small forwards of all time.  During the prime of his career, Scottie Pippen could have easily played for just about any team and would have been the most talented, the most celebrated, and, likely, the highest paid player on the team.  Instead, Scottie Pippen spent the prime of his career playing for the Chicago Bulls alongside another player…named Michael Jordan.  Talk about a big fish!  In the basketball world, there is no fish bigger than Michael Jordan.  I am sure that there were times when feeling like a little fish bruised Pippen’s ego.  I am sure that there were many instances in which he felt small.  I know he probably thought about leaving the Bulls and being another team’s superstar.  But here’s the truth: swimming in the same pond as Michael Jordan helped make Scottie Pippen greater than his natural talents.  It forced him to elevate his playing to Michael Jordan levels.  It enabled him to win championships and Olympic gold medals.

Situations in which we feel like a tail and not a head can be painful. But if we courageously embrace those moments and approach them with the right perspective, we can become greater than we would have ever thought possible.

My friend ended up staying at his Ivy League college.  He pushed through the blow to his ego and challenged himself by being in the company of other great minds.  And he discovered that he had a great deal to learn from those other students.  Spending his whole life as a big fish in a small pond had given him the perception that no one else had anything to offer.  Since he was on top, he had always assumed that he had nowhere left to grow.  But once he realized that there were other big fish, he also realized that others had significant things to offer him – insights to share, problems to collaboratively solve, perspectives to impart.  And he realized that even big fish have room to change, grow, and improve.

Sure, he would probably have been successful regardless of what school he attended.  He is smart and talented.  And we can grow and be challenged without spending six figures on an Ivy League education.  But by embracing this moment in which he felt like a tail, by not running away to a place where he could be a head, he pushed himself to grow in unprecedented ways, challenging himself to strive upward, realizing what he was truly capable of.

Not all heads and tails are equal.  Rabbi Matya ben Harash teaches us in the Mishnah, “hevei zanav la’Arayot, v’al t’hi rosh la’shu-alim / Become a tail to lions, and do not become a head to foxes.”  Feeling like a tail may be painful, but we should consider: perhaps in those moments we are actually a tail to lions.  Perhaps we are simply playing a smaller role in something great.  And when we see those experiences in that light, we elevate ourselves.  After all, as the commentaries on this Mishnah point out, is it not the way of lions to walk with their tails lifted above their heads?  As tails to lions, we can push ourselves to excel.  The choice is ours: Swimming with the bigger fish can make us shrink, or it can invite us to lift ourselves up and become better than we thought possible.

Many of us, when we find ourselves in situations where we feel like the tail and not the head, look for ways to make ourselves feel bigger.  We try to run from the pain.  We seek circumstances in which we can be the head.  That, according to the Mishnah, is what it means to become a head to foxes.  It is the distorting and self-defeating notion that if we simply position ourselves as the best, even if it is totally subjective, and even if it happens by putting down others, then we can prove our self-worth.  Trouble is, doing this actually brings us down.  It doesn’t lift us up.  Foxes, after all, walk with their heads down low to the ground.

For example, I know a young lady who enjoys being surrounded by overweight people.  It makes her feel good when she is the skinniest person in a crowd.  But the fact that she might be the skinniest person in a room has absolutely no bearing on whether or not she is healthy.  And by avoiding the feeling of being a tail, she has embraced the fantasy that her own self-worth is linked to being slightly thinner than the next thinnest person.  In actuality, though, she has simply become a head to foxes.

We also see this in the biblical character, Noah.  The Torah says that Noah was an ish tzadik tamim hayah b’dorotav / he was a pure and righteous man in his generation.  In the Talmud, Rabbi Yohanan explains that Noah was only righteous in comparison to the people of his generation.  That’s not saying much, considering that the people of Noah’s generation are all so irredeemably evil that God decides to destroy them all in a flood.  Now, to Noah’s credit, it certainly takes courage and fortitude to withstand the pressure to conform.  But being objectively righteous involves not only avoiding evil but also doing good.  An objectively righteous person, like Abraham, would have argued that God should spare the people.  An objectively righteous person, like Moses, would have prayed on the people’s behalf.  An objectively righteous person, like the prophets of Israel, would have warned people about the impending disaster, urging them to do teshuvah.  Noah isn’t objectively at the top.  He’s a head, but a head to foxes.

This brings me to a second insight: the promise of our becoming the head doesn’t just happen.  The part we play depends on how we play it.  What we do matters.  Our parashah teaches that we become the head only when we live a life of Torah.  The blessing doesn’t just happen.  We have to strive for it.  And striving is acting on the recognition that sometimes, being the tail can push us to become better.

For example, many of us walk into synagogue and feel lost.  We don’t understand the Hebrew, when to stand up or bow, or what page we’re on.  Those moments make many of us want to leave and never come back.  Many of us do that, and it’s understandable.  But God invites another way: by remaining steadfast in a moment of feeling like a little fish, we can see how to grow into an ever-bigger fish.  Of course, the quote-unquote “big fish” in the synagogue are obligated not to make anyone feel small.  But those of us who feel like little fish also have agency.  Ours is the power to confront our own insecurities and to tell them, “Though it scares me, though it might hurt, I am going to face the challenge and stay right here so that I might stretch and expand.  I would rather be a tail to lions than a head to foxes.”

To me, the religious life is all about striving.  God holds out greatness and invites us to grow through trying to attain it.  That, after all, is the very essence of Torah and mitzvot.

So this Shabbat, I want us all to know that we hold the promise of Moses’ blessing already inside of us.  And I want us to recognize that not all heads and tails are equal. We have the challenge and the capacity not only to be the best kind of head, but also the best kind of tail.  And we have the power to make this blessing come true in our lives.  And when we do, no matter where we are or who we’re with, we will always be “a-head.”  Shabbat Shalom.

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