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‘Don’t be a tail!’

What a strange blessing …

Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion looks through documents in his Tel Aviv office, January 1959. Photo by Fritz Cohen, Photography Department of Israel’s Government Press Office via Wikimedia Commons..
Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion looks through documents in his Tel Aviv office, January 1959. Photo by Fritz Cohen, Photography Department of Israel’s Government Press Office via Wikimedia Commons..
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. He is the author of From Where I Stand, on the weekly Torah readings, available from Ktav.com and Amazon.

There are many kinds of blessings. Every situation, every occasion, has a different blessing. We wish success to some, to others long life or good health, and to still others we wish nachas and pride from their children.

When my sister was a small child, she was somewhat confused by the traditional Yiddish blessings we give people at various life milestones. Someone had a baby and she wished them biz hundert un tzvantzig! In plain English, that means, “till 120!” It’s what we say when someone, particularly a more mature person, has a birthday: May you live a long life, all the way to the proverbial 120 years. But to wish a new mother another 119 children was neither appropriate nor appreciated. Anyway, we all had a good laugh.

In this week’s Torah reading Ki Tavo, we come across the Rebuke, a long and painful list of misfortunes that will occur to us if we reject the faith and wander from the path of God. If we are faithful to His way of life, we will be blessed. If not, the Rebuke contains some heavy descriptions of the tragedies that will befall us.

One of the blessings is “God shall place you as a head and not as a tail.” Now, I ask you: This is a blessing? Don’t be a tail? To be honest, I can’t quite picture myself bestowing such a blessing on a Bar Mitzvah boy. Frankly, I’m not sure his parents would appreciate it either.

In fact, Pirkei Avot 4:14 tells us to be “a tail to lions” rather than “a head to foxes.” The simple meaning is that it is better to sit at the feet of the wise and learn from them than to be a leader of lesser individuals.

There are a variety of interpretations given to the Ki Tavo blessing by the commentators. One is that the blessing is advice to individuals who may be ambitiously pursuing higher stations in life. Often, the road to the top requires us not only to stand on the heads of others but also to ingratiate ourselves with those who outrank us on the corporate ladder. In pursuit of our aspirations, we can make the mistake of becoming “yes-men,” forever currying favor with our superiors. That’s the kind of “tail” we are discouraged from becoming.

The flamboyant film mogul Samuel Goldwyn of MGM Studios was famous for his malapropisms. In fact, they were so notorious that someone coined the term “Goldwynisms.” One of his well-known lines was “I don’t want any yes-men around me. I want everyone to tell me the truth. Even if it costs them their jobs!”

The blessing of being a head and not a tail is that we should never demean ourselves in order to advance within a given hierarchy. 

However, the teaching applies not only to individuals but also to nations: In trying to be a head, don’t allow yourself to become a tail. In the attempt to become a powerful nation, don’t lose your own self-respect and ingratiate yourself with other nations. Yes, we should be pragmatic and flexible, not dogmatic or intransigent, but we should never degrade ourselves into a wagging tail that is but an appendage to the body and has no mind of its own.

Legend has it that David Ben-Gurion famously celebrated the apprehension of the first thief in Israel after statehood was declared. “Now we are a nation like all nations,” he is reputed to have remarked. In another version of the story, he states, “We will know we have become a normal country when Jewish thieves and prostitutes conduct their business in Hebrew.”

I think it’s sad if that’s what we have to do to be a nation. Why should we be a “nation like all nations?” We should march to our own beat. We always have and, please God, we always will.

Whether in our own personal lives or in our national identity, let us not degrade ourselves and become lowly tails in order to achieve some elusive position of leadership.

May we all be truly blessed to be a head and not a tail.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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