It seems that when most people successfully complete a project, reach a personal milestone or accomplish something particularly difficult, their natural inclination is to be proud of all the work they performed and to do something nice for themselves. That certainly is what I like to do when I feel I have done particularly good work, and I know I’m not the only one.
And yet, if I pause to think about this reaction, I realize that it is very self-serving. Focusing on how hard I worked and what a good job I did only serves to feed my ego; going out to dinner because of my success means that I am keeping my good fortune to myself.
But our celebrations do not have to be self-serving. What if, instead of boosting our own egos and keeping our successes to ourselves, we responded to our personal victories with humility and generosity?
This is one of the lessons of our Torah portion, Ki Tavo. This parashah begins by describing the ritual of bikkurim, or first fruits. Each year, after the first spring harvest, every farmer from across the land of Israel would come to the Temple in Jerusalem with a basket full of the first fruits of that year’s harvest.
Each one would bring his basket to the priest and make a declaration: “I declare today unto the Lord your God that I came to this land which the Lord had promised to our fathers to give to us .… The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, and with great awe, and with signs and wonders, and has brought us to this place, and has given to us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now, behold, I have brought the first fruit of the land, which you, Lord, have given to me.” (Deuteronomy 26:3, 8-10)
The wording of this declaration is very interesting. The Hebrew begins and ends with a first-person declaration: “I came to this land ...” and “I have brought the first fruit … which you, Lord, have given to me.” But the rest of the declaration is recited in the plural: “The Lord brought us out of Egypt … and has brought us to this place, and has given to us this land.”
The farmer, who has worked so hard for a bountiful harvest, is forced to focus not on himself but on the nation he is part of. What is more, the farmer takes virtually no credit for himself in this passage. He does not refer to “my fruit” or “my harvest”; rather, he speaks of the fruit and the land that God has given him.
After making this declaration, the bikkurim ritual concludes with the farmer leaving the first fruits with the priests as an offering to God, after which the farmer is commanded to “rejoice in all the good that the Lord your God has given to you and to your household – you, and the Levite, and the stranger who is within your midst” (Deuteronomy 26:11). In other words, the farmers are commanded to share their harvest with the Levites and the strangers, people who do not own land and therefore do not have a harvest of their own.
It’s easy to think that what we find in this parashah is merely an outdated agricultural ritual that applied only in times when the Temple stood. However, what we find here is so much more. It is a guide to how one should celebrate when one enjoys a success. It is a reminder that our individual successes are only possible because we are part of a community, that the things we accomplish only come about because of the gifts we have been given, and that our celebrations are only complete if we rejoice by sharing what we have accomplished with those who do not have the same opportunities.
As we prepare to begin a new year, let us commit ourselves to embodying the lessons of Ki Tavo. The next time you enjoy a success, try to acknowledge and thank all the people who helped you along the way; instead of using your success as an excuse to treat yourself, use it as a reason to share joy with others.
By celebrating our accomplishments with humility and generosity, we will come a little closer to the vision that our parashah offers of a society filled with joy and blessings.
RACHEL ZERIN is a rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, in Providence.