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Home » Ki Tisa, Miscellaneous

Ki Tisa: Use Your Head

Submitted by on February 16, 2019 – 9:46 pmNo Comment | 385 views

Use your head is an idiom that means think things through carefully. Don’t just jump on the bandwagon. Use your head. Think about it, figure out the ramifications and avoid making a mistake.

The Torah says, “When you list the heads of the children of Israel according to their numbers.”[1] What does it mean to lift our heads, is it the same as saying use your head? Rashi, the eleventh-century commentator, explained, “lifting is an idiom for taking. . . when you wish to take the sum of their numbers to see how many there are.” Yet, if the Torah had merely wanted to say, “take the sum,” it could have said so. If the Torah uses the idiom, “lift the head,” it must have a deeper meaning.

Use Your Head

We know that the Torah is not a history book, it is a book of instruction. Every word in Torah is instructive, therefore when we encounter an unusual phrase, we need to look for a message.

To help us understand the message in this phrase, we will explore an equally enigmatic phrase by King Solomon, who wrote, “the wise man has eyes in his head.”[2] What does it mean to have eyes in your head? I remember my grade teachers claiming to have eyes in the back of their heads, but I can’t imagine King Solomon, the wisest of all men, referring to this fable.

Once again, we lean on Rashi, who explained, “the wise man has eyes at the beginning of the matter and observes what will be at the end.” This is essentially what we mean when we say, use your head. Think things through, consider the long-term ramifications and make sure you are not making a mistake. A foolish person jumps headlong onto the bandwagon. A wise person weights the pros and cons and considers the secondary and tertiary outcomes of every action.

If you are enjoying happy hour at the bar while your family awaits you at home, you are looking at the alcohol, but your eyes are not in your head, they are elsewhere. If you are happily married, but engage in occasional dalliances, you are not using the eyes in your head. You are thinking with a different part of your anatomy.

The Torah comes along and tells us, lift your head. Pull your head out of the other parts of your anatomy and lift it to where it belongs. Use your head. Consider the long-term ramifications. A wise person doesn’t think only about instant gratification. A wise person looks at the entire picture.

Ooh and Aah

Rabbi Yissacor Ber Rokeach, the grand rebbe of Belz, once took his grandson to the mikvah. The mikvah waters were hot and when the little boy first entered, he screamed, oooh. A few minutes later, when the boy grew accustomed to the heat, he relaxed and sighed, aaah. His grandfather, the Rebbe, observed that this is the difference between good deeds and bad deeds. Good deeds begin with oooh but end with aaaah. Bad deeds begin with aaah but end with oooh.

A good deed seems painful in the beginning but looking back on it is rewarding. A bad deed seems rewarding in the beginning but looking back on it is painful. “A wise man has eyes at the beginning of the matter and observes what will be at the end.” Wise people don’t just think of the oooh—the immediate pleasure, they also consider the aaah— the long-term ramifications.

Our sages taught us to weigh the cost of a mitzvah against its reward and the reward of a sin against its cost.[3] When a child is told to come home in the middle of a game because it is bedtime on a school night, it feels painful, but in the morning, the child is pleased to have gotten the sleep. When you are about to tee off at the golf course and the rabbi calls to ask you to attend a minyan, it feels painful to say yes. But when you go to bed later at night, you are glad you went. Of course, if you refuse the minyan, and tee off instead, your lowest score won’t bring you pleasure. It will only taunt you.[4]

Lift Your Head

Sometimes we use our head, we see the long-term ramifications, but we feel powerless to stop ourselves. The allure is overwhelming and despite knowing the dangers and considering the costs, we are drawn in by the titillating allure. This is called the head surrendering to the heart.

The Talmud teaches that when Mashiach comes, the truth will become evident to us all and those who succumbed to lust, greed, dishonesty, etc., will suddenly realize that the allure was as flimsy as a strand of hair. At that time, we will cry out and say, why did this obstacle seem so insurmountable?[5]

When we are faced with the allure of sin, it seems insurmountable. But when we finally succumb, the pleasure never lives up to its promise. A bad deed is never as satisfying as we thought it would be. In fact, it is usually downright disappointing; we are disappointed with ourselves and with the sin.

So why does it feel insurmountable? Because G-d wants us to feel as if we are being tested. The truth is that sin versus holiness is no test. Any sane person would choose holiness. Suppose I offered you a ton of gold or a ton of mud, would you be tempted to take the mud? Only an insane person would take the mud. But that is precisely it. When G-d presents us with the choice of holiness versus sin, he opens the door to foolishness. He tells us that if we want to behave as if we are insane, as if our mind is powerless (against our heart), and doesn’t know that we really don’t want to sin, we are welcome to choose insanity.

Nevertheless, we don’t have to choose insanity. We don’t have to lower our head into the gutter. We can lift our head, hold it high, and allow it to rule over the heart. By its very nature, the mind can control the impulses of the heart. Try it. When you are caught up in the throes of temptation, tell yourself to hold off for two minutes. If you choose to, you will be able to wait. If you can do it once, you can do it twice. Your mind can control your heart, the only reason you feel like you can’t, is that you don’t want to.

Says the Torah, if you want to be counted, if you want to count for something, lift your head. When you feel powerless, you can and must lift your head to its natural position and allow the mind to rule the heart.

The Test

Rabbi Moshe Meisels was a Chasid of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Rebbe of Chabad. When Napoleon invaded Russia, he secured a job as a janitor in the French war room and acted like a simpleton. He then memorized the war plans and dispatched it to the Rebbe, who forwarded it to the Russian army.

One day Napoleon accused Reb Moshe of being a spy and placed his hand on Reb Moshe’s heart to see if it was beating quickly. Reb Moshe regulated his heartbeat and saved his life. This Chassid later related that the decades he had spent honing his mind’s mastery over his heart, had saved his life.

[1] Exodus, 30:10.

[2] Ecclesiastics, 2:14.

[3] Ethics of our Fathers, 2:1.

[4] This is based on a talk by the Lubavitcher Rebbe on 29 Adar I, 5730 / March 7, 1970.

[5] Babylonian Talmud, Sukah, 52a.

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