Heads or Tails?

Sitting in front of the computer on the day before Rosh HaShanna trying to figure out how to inspire myself in the face of the impending Day of Judgement. Then I was hit by a thought.

One of the simannim (signs) that we eat on the night of Rosh HaShanna is the head of a fish or a sheep. Upon eating it we say שנהיה לראש ולא לזנב, “so that we should be the head – not the tail”. What exactly does this mean?

It is a prayer with connotations both for all of Israel and for myself on a personal/individual level.

In the national sense it is a prayer that as a nation we should stop being ridiculed, belittled and subjugated. That the final redemption should come (speedily in our times) and that we should lead the world into a time of peace and prosperity as prophesized!

But on a personal level it talks about something else entirely.

Everyone has aspirations in their life. But the question is: to what, exactly, am I aspiring?

But in our aspirations it is quite natural to aspire to be the leader, the alpha dog, the head of our group of peers. “So that we should be the head and not the tail” we say on Rosh HaShanna night.

However not all “heads” are equal in this regard and it’s truly not enough to just aspire to be the head. Of what, exactly, are you the head?

Concerning this issue the Mishna in Tractate Avos (4:16) writes “Mattiya Ben Charash says be the first to ask all people how they are (shalom) and be the tail of a lion, but not the head of a fox”.

These two statements of R’ Mattiya Ben Charash have what to do with each other. First, he says to be the first to ask all people how they are doing. This is an activity that fosters in a person a sense of concern for his fellow. “Fake it ‘till you make it”, says the world. “Do Torah and Mitzvos even not for their sake (sheloh lishma= for the wrong reasons), for from the midst of actions done not for their own sake a person comes to do them for their own sake (i.e. for the right reasons)”. The more we show concern for our fellows the more concern we will have for them. This is, therefore, a course of action that makes a person into a better man. It also makes a person likable and accepted as a part of society.

But then another issue rises. It’s great to have wonderful middos and to have concern for one’s fellow man, but there is so much more to man than just that. What do you aspire to as well? What is my place in society and what are my aspirations in my life? For that we need to stop and consider the following.

Who are my heroes? Heroes are the embodiment of people to whom I aspire. They represent my goals and desires and present me with concrete examples of someone who has overcome much in order to achieve them. We hold up are heroes as people that we ourselves identify with and want to be.

But in reality it’s not just our heroes who define us. More than anything else it is the people whose company we keep.

Many (=most) times our heroes are unattainable and although we hold them up as examples of who we would like to be, we really don’t so more than pay lip-service towards becoming like them. Why try to attain the unattainable? But our friends and acquaintances? They are with us and influence us all the time. So really the question is am I in the company of foxes or of lions? Who, really, are our friends?

To this end Mattiya Ben Charash tells us to take note of the tremendous difference that exists between the company of lions (=tzadikim) as opposed to that of the foxes (=evil doers). There is a cap on the growth of people who keep the company of foxes. One can aspire to, and achieve greatness in their midst but once there – that’s all she wrote! One can become the head of foxes. It is attainable. But once there that’s it. You can throw the biggest and best parties, have boat-loads of friends that come over and drink you dry. People can shower you with their affection. But it will only last as long as the parties do as well! “What have you done for me lately” is the motto of this group.

Better than that is to be in the company of lions, even if it means to be among the lowliest of them, for it is there that the path to real growth and true greatness lies. It is a group that demands that you grow even if you don’t feel like it, because only in that way will you become a person deserving of respect not for the things you do, but for the person that you are.

So clearly when we aspire to be the head, when we eat the fish head and say “That we should be the head and not the tail” understand that the head to which we are aspiring on a personal level is not to become the leader of people of little aspirations. It’s to work and sweat and make myself into the best “me” that I can possibly be.

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