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Ki Tavo: What Is Success?

  • Ki Tavo: What Is Success?

    Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8
D'var Torah By: 

"Success" is a song sung by the immigrant Jew, Tateh, in the Broadway play Ragtime. In the song, a father sings to his young daughter that "hope is in the air." They have journeyed to America, the new Promised Land, so that he can give his daughter a better life. Tateh defines "success" as "doing well." But, he is soon disillusioned in the fetid tenements and uses his prayer shawl (tallit) just to keep his sick daughter warm. Tateh calls upon God, "Why have you brought us here?" His despair does not prevent him from telling his little girl that they will find the success they came for. And sure enough, out of the curses of tenement life, the immigrant Tateh emerges with the blessings of love, good fortune, and harmony, achieving the success he yearned for, by play's end.

Poised to enter the Promised Land, Moses describes in detail what is to happen when the wilderness immigrants reach their destination, in our Torah portion this week. Elaborate rituals of thanksgiving, and an abundant litany and choreography of curses and blessings abound. But, it is in his final and fourth oration, at the very end of our portion, that we see what Moses's immigrants and Tateh have in common. Tateh asks, "Why have you brought us here?" and he yearns for success. In the exact same way, our ancestors are told the "why" of their four-decade journey. They are informed that their time wandering through the wilderness had a purpose: "that you might know that I the Eternal am your God" (Deuteronomy 29:5). God proved to them that they were cared for by giving them food each day (Exodus 16:14-21) and clothing and shoes that never wore out (Deuteronomy 29:4). But now, about to enter their new Land, they need to know how to achieve success for themselves, and how to be the beneficiaries of the blessings and the promise of the Land.

The answer to how the Israelites are to achieve success comes for our ancestors in the very last line of our portion, Deuteronomy 29:8, "Therefore observe faithfully all the terms of this covenant [b'rit], that you may succeed [l'ma-an taskilu] in all that you undertake." What is success in our Torah portion? The answer comes to us in the verb taskilu, which our commentary tells us does not appear elsewhere in the entire Book of Deuteronomy. One word of Torah can sometimes reveal an entire portion's message if we study it carefully.

Plaut's footnote for verse 8 interprets success through the lens of verses 4 and 5; "That you may after all understand God's marvelous deeds for you" (W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, [New York: URJ Press, 2005], p. 1,348). This is a natural way to interpret the word taskilu, as the root of the verb issin-kaf-lamed, which means "to understand and make wise." But success does not come just from understanding the purpose of our journey with God. If we read the verse carefully, we find that success comes from faithfully observing all of the terms of the "covenant."Success comes only when we understand that we must do the hard work of observing and living the covenant, our contractual relationship with God. Ironically, it is in mastering the wisdom, learning, and understanding of the Torah and its teachings that we can find our personal path to success. Through observance, we can find our promise and keep our faith alive on our land and in our lives, wherever we dwell. We must go from knowledge to action to greater knowledge. The power oftaskilu is that it engages our mind even as it spurs us to action. We succeed only when we understand the path that we are to take to achieve and define our success.

The Italian commentator Sforno (1475-1550) writes on this verse: "In adhering to God's covenant, Israel would achieve 'his' [its] national and spiritual purpose." As Reform Jews, this verse is a powerful reminder that spiritual success in the Land of Israel cannot be equated with national success. Just being an Israeli does not insure the survival of Torah and the continuity of Jewish life. Standing as Moses did and seeing the Land from afar, we must devote time and resources to enabling our Israeli brothers and sisters with an opportunity to see that a faithful relationship to the covenant in and on modern terms is a critical element to Jewish success. We must be the voice of social justice and fairness, we must teach and defend the values of the Torah promoting gender equality and communal civility, and we must show a compelling reason for being learned and observant as modern Jews in the Promised Land.

This week's haftarah from Isaiah 60:21 confirms this interpretation: "Your people shall be righteous, all of them, and posses the land forever . . ." Righteousness is the ticket to success in this passage. Security in the land and a mighty nation come from a life where all, not just a small few, are "righteous people," tzaddikim, whose lives are guided by the values of Torah and tradition, as interpreted in a relationship with God for the twenty-first century Jew. May we recommit ourselves this Shabbat to help build a strong Reform Movement in the Land of Israel to ensure spiritual success there, and a partnership for a thriving and surviving Jewish heritage throughout the world.

Before the Sh'ma, we pray to God each day: "Give our heart the ability to know and to understand [l'haskil], to learn and to teach, to observe and uphold with love all the teachings of your Torah." Torah is our path to success. Torah is the "enlightenment," haskalah that will enable us to feel a sense of wholeness and peace in our lives. Making time to fulfill our covenant by living and learning Torah will enable us to find the personal and spiritual success that so often eludes us.

As we count the days to Rosh Hashanah, when we will stand before God in our synagogues, in the communities we support, may we reflect on our successes and failures of the past year. This is the time of year when we seek to find a formula for a successful life-personally, professionally, and spiritually. Like Tateh, we know that life is all about our expectations for success. We are taught this Shabbat that the Promised Land is not ours to enjoy without effort. To succeed, we must make a commitment to observe a covenant that has lasted thousands of years. Letting God and Torah help us set an agenda for our lives ensures the kind of success we yearn for at this time of year and every day.

Rabbi Amy R. Perlin, D. D., is a summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Princeton University, and was ordained from the New York School of HUC - JIR in 1982. She is the senior rabbi of Temple B'nai Shalom in Fairfax Station, Virginia.

Preparing for Miracles
Davar Acher By: 
David M. Frank

Indeed, understanding is a central theme of Ki Tavo. Moses assembles the Israelites and, pointing out the great miracles they have experienced, he says: "Yet to this day the Eternal has not given you a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear" (Deuteronomy 29:3).

Why? Why, only many years later could the Israelites understand all they had previously witnessed and experienced?

In a poem called, "Miracles," Yehuda Amichai explains:

From far away, everything looks like a miracle,
But up close, even a miracle doesn't look like one.
Even a crosser of the divided Red Sea
Saw only the sweating back of the walker in front of him
And the movement of his large thighs . . .
(Modern Poetry in Translation, New Series, no. 4, winter 1993-94)

Often, we are just too caught up in the demands of the hour to perceive the miracle of which we are a part. Only later does understanding dawn and we realize that, in the words of our patriarch Jacob, "Truly, the Eternal is in this place, and I did not know it" (Genesis 28:16).

This is precisely why we all need a spiritual practice. For, the goal of a spiritually present person is to have a heightened awareness of what is happening at the moment, rather than delayed recognition. I have found that Torah and mitzvot prepare me for those moments of wonder, of holy encounter, of awe. They give me "eyes to see and ears to hear." They hone my sensitivity to the potential of a miracle arising out of any ordinary day.

Especially in our hyper culture, we need the perspective of Torah and mitzvot to draw coherence and understanding from our chaotic days and nights. So, accordingly, does our prayer book affirm Torah as that guide: "You grace humans with knowledge and teach understanding" (T'filah, Binah).

Rabbi David M. Frank, D.D., is the senior rabbi at Temple Solel, Cardiff by the Sea, California.

Reference Materials: 

Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,508–1,537; Revised Edition, pp. 1,347–1,367;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,191–1,216