God enables our success

By Rabbi Ben Sternman

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, there is a beautiful passage that reminds us to be grateful for the gifts that God gives us. It’s the section that we traditionally read during the Passover Seder beginning with “My father was a fugitive Aramean…” and ending with “Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, Eternal One, have given me.” (Deuteronomy 26: 5-10) It is possible to read this section as a command for the appropriate type of offering to God with a prescribed incantation, but I prefer to take it up to 11, verse 11, that is. The verse reads (with emphasis added): “And you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty [b’chol tov] that the Eternal your God has bestowed upon you and your household.” This is not simply about the first fruits offering to God, but gratitude for everything that God gives to us. We might be tempted to believe it was our own hard work that earned us the bounty we enjoy. We might be tempted to think, well, I worked hard for this harvest with the planting, the weeding, the watering, the harvesting, etc. and I deserve it all. But this passage reminds us to be grateful for what God provides us, that we cannot take complete credit for our success. 

This same message can be found in the Talmud, Berachot 58a, in which we learn of a blessing that Ben Zoma gave after he saw a multitude of Israelites while he was standing on a stair of the Temple Mount. Ben Zoma said blessed is the One who knows all secrets and blessed is the One who made all these to serve me. How chutzpadik! Blessed is the One who knows all secrets is the traditional blessing when you see a multitude of Jews, but to then bless God for creating all of them just to serve you? The effrontery! 

Ah, ah, ah. Not so fast, explains Ben Zoma. How much effort would Adam HaRishon, the first man, have had to exert before he found bread to eat? First, he had to plow, sow, reap, gather into sheaves, thresh, winnow, separate, grind, sift, knead and bake before he could eat. But, Ben Zoma recognized that he would wake up to find all these labors already performed for him. Similarly, how much effort would Adam HaRishon have had to exert before he found clothes to wear? First, he had to shear, wash, comb, spin and weave before he could get dressed in his clothes. But, Ben Zoma recognized that he would wake up to find all these labors already performed for him. “Indeed, members of all nations, merchants and craftsmen, diligently come to the entrance of my home, and I wake up and find all these before me.”

We like to think that we are responsible for our own success through our own hard work. But when we do, we ignore all that God freely gives us as well as the work of so many other people who make our lives possible and whose efforts we ourselves build upon. We must never forget how interdependent we are and how we could never do our own work without first benefiting from the work of others and enjoying the blessings of God.

Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano and the vice president of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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