Friday, August 20, 2010

Parsha Ki Tetze: Can We Avert Out Fate?

Karl Marx believed that history was nothing more than a cyclical clash of the bourgeoisie against the proletariat. Greek mythology advanced the idea that you cannot avoid your fate, an idea best illustrated by the story of Oedipus. The Twinkie Defense exemplifies the notion of genetic determinism. Calvinist predestination states that G-d “freely and unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass,” even when it comes to G-d predetermining whether you receive salvation or eternal damnation.

What these four very different paradigms are echoing is what many have thought throughout history: our circumstances are beyond our control, and there is nothing we can do to choose, let alone change, our outcome. We call this point of view pre-determinism.

Are we really stuck with the cards we have been dealt, and we’re just going along for the ride? Or do we have enough control of the outcome that we are able to dodge “fate” and actually prolong our lives?

When it comes to making a choice between right and wrong, Judaism unequivocally advocates free will. Otherwise, G-d giving us a bunch of laws that we cannot follow would be a superfluous, farcical act. However, we have to realize that ethics (i.e., right vs. wrong) are merely reactionary choices to a given situation. How we respond to situations beyond our control (i.e., exerting self-control) is important because it doesn’t let external forces get the better of you. It has a degree of self-empowerment, and I’m not here to diminish that.

Instead of analyzing reactive self-empowerment, I would like to analyze the possibility of the proactive measure of prolonging one’s life. Going back to Calvinist predestination, we have no say in the matter. It’s all up to G-d, and we have to accept that everything is all G-d’s doing. This mentality leaves no leeway for free will in this area.

This week’s Parsha, on the other hand, has a different story to tell:

כִּי תִבְנֶה בַּיִת חָדָשׁ, וְעָשִׂיתָ מַעֲקֶה לְגַגֶּךָ; וְלא-תָשִׂים דָּמִים בְּבֵיתֶךָ, כִּי-יִפּל הַנּפֵל מִמֶּנּוּ.

When you build a new house, then you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you do not bring blood upon your house, if any man fall from it. -Deuteronomy 22:8 

In this instance, the Torah is commanding us to build a fence around our roof [if we have one]. Why? In order to protect those who are on the roof from falling off. The verse teaches us the importance of taking preventative measures to avoid dangerous situations (Talmud, Ketubot, 41b; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpta 427:7). If we take the Calvinist’s viewpoint that one’s longevity is predetermined and no human action could deter his inevitable surmise (i.e., it’s all in G-d’s hands), building such a fence would be a pointless endeavor. If the person’s date of death has not arrived, then the person would not need to be protected for the fence. We can use the same line of reasoning with the cities of refuge (Numbers 35:11-12) and exempting a soldier who just betrothed a wife from going into battles [lest he die in warfare and another man takes her to be his wife] (Deuteronomy 20:7).

G-d did not want us to only have the choice of whether to act ethically. He also gave us the choice between life and death, and commanded us to choose life so we may live (Deuteronomy 30). G-d is not some micro-managing interferer that treats us like infantile munchkins. G-d is much more like a parent who wants to see His children grow and learn how to stand on their own two feet. That is why He gives us the ability to prolong our lives. By realizing the power that G-d has given us as human beings, we can better appreciate the gift of life that He has given us.

שבת שלום!

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