Winning the Divine Lottery

Moses reminds the Israelites that their accomplishments are not solely the result of their own efforts.

Commentary on Parashat Eikev, Deuteronomy 7:12 - 11:25

In his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell seeks to expose how random factors beyond our control make some of us more likely to succeed than others. Classic example: More Major League Baseball players have been born in August than any other month. Why? Because until 2006, Little League baseball’s age cutoff date was July 31, meaning that if you were born in August, you were older and bigger and better than the other players on your team. All because of the happy accident of your birthday.

Gladwell seeks to undermine the narrative that the most successful among us — the singular talents who supposedly rise from nothing — succeed because of their grit and gumption, because of their unparalleled genius and unusual gifts. Far too often, these fanciful stories conceal hidden advantages that were essential to the person’s success, hidden advantages like an August birthday.

One could call the Torah the grandaddy of all rags to riches stories, chronicling the Israelites’ journey from the bitter suffering of slavery in Egypt to the sweet success of the land of milk and honey. And in Parashat Eikev, we find the children of Israel on the cusp of their greatest triumph to date. At long last, after 400 years of slavery and 40 years of trekking through the wilderness, they’re about to enter the promised land.

The Torah tells us many times the reason for this ascendancy: “The mighty hand and the outstretched arm” of God. We are told that God chose the children of Israel to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Yet for many of us, the notion that Jews are uniquely cherished by God is among the most challenging ideas in our theology. It smacks of conceit and Jewish superiority. It doesn’t feel right. It’s gotten us into trouble.

Why were we chosen? What makes us so special?

A midrash in Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer offers a paradigm-shifting answer. One day, God and the angels gathered to decide who among them would represent each of the nations of the world. They chose to assign each nation by casting lots. The first angel picked the Moabites, the second the Jebusites, the third the Edomites, and so on. Until finally it came God’s turn to pick. And who should God’s lot fall upon, but the children of Israel.

In other words, Jews won the divine lottery. That’s it. Dumb luck. Which is why it is all the more prescient when Moses warns us in Parashat Eikev not to forget the genesis of our good fortune after we reach the promised land: “When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Eternal your God … and say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have made for me this fortune.’”

E.B. White wrote that “Luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men.” But luck is something that we should be talking about all the time, especially in the presence of so-called self-made men. Because just thinking about luck makes us better people.

Studies have shown that simply being prompted to think about the role of fortune in our successes makes us more generous to others, and more willing to give of our time and resources to the common good. When we externalize the causes of our achievements, we realize how much we owe to the world.

So inspired by Parashat Eikev, think of something that you’ve recently accomplished. Now think of the factors beyond your control that contributed to that accomplishment: loving parents, a supportive partner, an outstanding teacher, that job that opened up at just the right moment.

And when you say your bedtime shema, in the words of Maya Angelou, “Let gratitude be the pillow upon which…you say your nightly prayer.”

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