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Ki Tavo 5782 - Hadran Alakh: Celebrating what I've learned and what I have yet to learn

September 17, 2022 - 21 Elul, 5782

In the world of Talmud study, every time one of the 63 tractates is complete, learners celebrate with a l’hayim and the Aramaic words, “hadran alakh.” “I will return to you!” Even after spending a whole lot of time squinting at the tiny letters of Talmud, deciphering obscure Jewish law, grammatical arguments, and ancient bickering, learners acknowledge that they’re not done learning yet. With “hadran alakh,” they acknowledge that they’ll come back again to learn more. The statement “hadran alakh” is not a celebration of completion, but rather, of reaching a milestone, of pride in how far the learners have come thus far. Through its celebration that our work can never truly be perfect or complete, Talmud study prepares us for every-day confidence in what we are able to accomplish within our human abilities.

Within the lengthy list of blessings and curses featured in Parashat Ki Tavo, the medieval Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra interprets one collection of those curses in a way that highlights our human inclination never to feel satisfied with what is left incomplete or imperfect. In Deuteronomy Chapter 28, Verse 20, Moses tells the people Israel that if they ignore God’s commandments…

יְשַׁלַּ֣ח ה׳ ׀ בְּ֠ךָ֠ אֶת־הַמְּאֵרָ֤ה אֶת־הַמְּהוּמָה֙ וְאֶת־הַמִּגְעֶ֔רֶת בְּכׇל־מִשְׁלַ֥ח יָדְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תַּעֲשֶׂ֑ה עַ֣ד הִשָּׁמֶדְךָ֤ וְעַד־אֲבׇדְךָ֙ מַהֵ֔ר מִפְּנֵ֛י רֹ֥עַ מַֽעֲלָלֶ֖יךָ אֲשֶׁ֥ר עֲזַבְתָּֽנִי׃

Adonai will send you m’erah, m’humah, and m’gaeret in all the enterprises you undertake, so that you shall soon be utterly destroyed and quickly lost because of your evildoing in forsaking Me.

For Ibn Ezra, המארה means “belittling,” המהומה means never being able to finish what has been started, and מהומה means never finding satisfaction in or rest from worry about what has been completed. Some of our greatest curses, according to our commentator, include belittling the hard work we have put into our efforts, focusing so much on the details of a project that we are unable to finish, and never taking that time to reflect and celebrate after a project has been completed. Ultimately, that worry and lack of satisfaction will lead to, as the Torah says, being “utterly destroyed” and “quickly lost.” When we worry too much about the details or about getting it just right, we miss opportunities and destroy our confidence in ourselves. When we tell ourselves we have not done enough, we risk losing the big picture - the accomplishments of our past, the blessings of our present, and the trajectory of our future.

Each of us here has made great accomplishments, at home, school, work, and in our community. None of us here have accomplished any of it without hiccups or imperfections along the way. And yet, each of our accomplishments were and are worth celebrating. Take just a moment and think about one of those things that you have accomplished - maybe you have taught a child to read, gotten city council to acknowledge your point of view, or convinced a relative to get vaccinated. Even with all of the challenges that slowed or complicated the process, you made a change in at least one other person’s life. Most likely, that change has had a ripple effect on a whole lot of others, as well. No matter how many other ideas and goals you have had that did not come to fruition, this one did. Every time you celebrate just one accomplishment, you motivate yourself to pursue another. By seeing you in your joy, you may even motivate someone else to pursue what they have otherwise been avoiding all this time. 

For just as many accomplishments as we have finished, many of us have projects that have been hindered by our fear of that completion. We have been so confused or bogged down by details that we have not been able to proceed. As Rabbi Tarfon teaches us in Pirkei Avot, on one hand “You are not obligated to complete the work,” but on the other, “you are not free to desist from it.” Just because something is challenging, scary, or just too big does not mean it is not worth doing. If it is the right work, if it is something you know must be done, perhaps the challenge is just that the ultimate goal is too far to truly grasp. When we have no celebrations to act as guideposts along the way, a task can seem impossible or can wear us out. 

Instead of going for gold before we have even begun our training, we can break that ultimate goal into smaller goals for ourselves or more goals divided amongst more people, giving us the chance to celebrate and share celebrations along the way. Instead of aiming to write a whole book, we aim to write a chapter at a time. Instead of aiming to become a cardiologist, we aim to finish college, med school, and succeed at a few odd jobs in the meantime.

Truly, our work will never be done; we will always find more to do, and better. And yet, we can and must acknowledge how far we have come at each juncture we can. Otherwise, we risk losing both the satisfaction in little triumphs and the vision of our greatest hopes and dreams. With each accomplishment, we take a big breath, express gratitude to all those who have helped us along the way, and then decide how we can learn and grow from the experience with which we have been blessed. 

Hadran alakh, Parashat Ki Tavo - we will return to you in just a few moments, next year, and for thousands of years after that. Although we know we will never learn all we can from you, we can acknowledge our accomplishments of creating a minyan to celebrate you and our God in community for one more Shabbat morning!

Sun, July 14 2024 8 Tammuz 5784