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D'VAR TORAH Ki Tavo: What Is Success? Amy R. Perlin
“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.Continue Reading