Ki Tavo: Failure Is Not an Orphan

Orphans is a painting by Sefedin Stafa. From fineartamerica.com

“Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan”, goes the saying.

Or, as President Kennedy put it in 1961 responding to a reporter’s question about a failed attack in Cuba: ”victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan”. This can help us understand one of the most difficult concepts in Judaism, and indeed in all of theology, the concept of chosenness. As Professor Jon. D. Levinson from Harvard University put it: “Few religious doctrines have attracted more virulent criticism than the idea of the chosen people. Over the past several centuries alone, both Jews and non-Jews have judged this key tenet of classical Judaism to be undemocratic, chauvinistic, superstitious—in short, retrograde in every way that matters to the progressive mind.”

The Torah says in this week’s Parasha (Deuteronomy 26):
“This day, the Lord, your God, is commanding you to fulfill these statutes and ordinances, and you will observe and fulfill them with all your heart and with all your soul. You have selected the Lord this day, to be your God, and to walk in His ways, and to observe His statutes, His commandments and His ordinances, and to obey Him. And the Lord has selected you this day to be His treasured people, as He spoke to you, and so that you shall observe all His commandments, and to make you supreme, above all the nations that He made, [so that you will have] praise, a [distinguished] name and glory; and so that you will be a holy people to the Lord, your God, as He spoke.”

Clearly, the verse speaks of a process of choosing. We choose Hashem as our God, and He chooses us as his nation. And yet, the commentators cannot come to an agreement on what the exact meaning of the term in question. “You have selected the Lord this day…And the Lord has selected”, the word for this is He’emarta. Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, who lived in Troyes, France (1040-1105) and was the greatest commentator of Jewish history, struggles to explain this term. He writes:

“We do not find any equivalent expression in the Scriptures [which might give us a clue to the meaning of these words]. However, it appears to me that [He’emir] denotes separation and distinction. [Thus, here, the meaning is as follows:] From all the pagan deities, you have set apart the Lord for yourself, to be your God, and He separated you to Him from all the peoples on earth to be His treasured people…”

This understanding or Rashi, and translations that follow it, are not agreed upon by the majority of other commentaries. Thus the multitude of other translations to this verse. How to we understand this idea of chosenness? What is its meaning or connection to reciprocity to begin with?

A fascinating passage in the Talmud (Chagigah 3A) explains:

Rabbi Elazar interpreted the following verses homiletically: “You have affirmed, this day, that the Lord is your God, and that you will walk in His ways and keep His statutes, His mitzvot, and His ordinances, and listen to His voice. And the Lord has affirmed you, this day, to be His treasure, as He promised you, and that you should keep all His mitzvot” (Deuteronomy 26:17–18). Rabbi Elazar explained: The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to the Jewish people: You have made Me a single entity in the world, as you singled Me out as separate and unique. And therefore I will make you a single entity in the world, as you will be a treasured nation, chosen by God. You have made Me a single entity in the world, as it is written: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4). And therefore I will make you a single entity in the world, as it is stated: “And who is like Your people, Israel, one nation in the land?” (I Chronicles 17:21).

The Jewish people stood up in a world which believed in thousands of gods, and said, no. Not many gods. Just one God. The Jewish people took this a step further. While others had gods who came when good things happened, and were dismissed when bad things happened, the Jewish people stuck to their God. One God, in the good and in the bad. In hardship and ease, in poverty and prosperity, through health and sickness, though slavery and freedom, only one God. Thus “The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to the Jewish people: You have made Me a single entity in the world, as you singled Me out as separate and unique. And therefore I will make you a single entity in the world, as you will be a treasured nation, chosen by God”.

It only follows that this same God has a message for the Jewish people in this week’s Parsha and throughout Jewish history. I was your only God even and pain and misery, you will be my people even when you fail me. Having a chosen people is not a sign of favoritism, it is a sign of loyalty. While success has many fathers, and as failure may be an orphan, a loving parent is there through hardship or joy. It doesn’t matter.

This is not to exclude anyone, nor should it warrant and apology. God loves the Jewish people, not at the expense of others, but to show the world what loyalty is about. God loves the

It is this sentiment that Moses invokes after the sin of the golden calf. “Why should the Egyptians say: ‘He brought them out with evil [intent] to kill them in the mountains and to annihilate them from upon the face of the earth’? Retreat from the heat of Your anger and reconsider the evil [intended] for Your people.”(Exodus 32) The nations of the world must see what a faithful God is about. The love between the Jews and God and vice versa is a never-ending circle of unconditional love. We are called on to commit to God even as He doesn’t shine his face on us; even as we suffer and struggle. God, in turn, loves the Jewish people though sin and even betrayal. We are His people.

Chosenness can make others feel excluded if looking at it from a narrow and biased perspective. The chosenness of the Jewish people is one that welcomes others to either join that circle of love with God and become Jewish or to serve the loving and loyal God, who has enough love for everyone, a God who will always cherish your goodness, even if you stray from Him.

Shortly after the Six-Day War, France’s President Charles de Gaulle said in a press conference Jews are “an elite people, self-confident and domineering” and therefore “provoking ill will in certain countries and at certain times.” No other nation in the world has been tarnished and attacked for being “elite” or “self-confident”. We are the only ones. He failed to recognize that our confidence does not come from a sense of entitlement, it comes from a sense of loyalty. Consistency. Not exclusions, but much greater inclusion. We are God’s Chosen Nation, yet it is a God who welcomes all. A God who will not abandon us in the hardest times, who has a love for everyone.

A tragic rock band song reflecting the great break our society has seen sings a song filled with pain about fathers who walk away:

“Father, father, tell me where have you been?

* * *

I’ve been missing you so bad
And you don’t seem to care
When I go to sleep at night, you’re not there
When I go to sleep at night, do you care?

Do you even miss us?

I need to know, I need to know
Why are you walking away?
Was it something I did?

Did I make a mistake cause
I’m trying to deal with the pain
I don’t understand this, is this how it ends?
I will try to understand

I need to know, I need to know
Why are you walking away?
Was it something I did?
Did I make a mistake cause
I’m trying to deal with the pain
I don’t understand this, is this how it ends?
I will try to understand

Why are you running away?
I don’t understand this, is this how it ends?
Why are you running away?
Tell me please, tell me please, I need to know”

In this week’s Parasha God tells us: failure is not an orphan. We are in a reciprocal relationship. The Jewish people have shown an incredible dedication to God and His commandments, God promises we will forever be His people. Anyone is welcome to join, everyone is urged to serve. It is a God who is loving, loyal, and is always there for us, as we should to Him.

Shabbat Shalom,

About the Author
The writer is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.
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