Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Fate and Destiny

In Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck describes the depression-era migration of Eastern share-croppers and their families to the West. Beset by troubles, the Joad family breaks a connection-rod in their truck, and visit a scrapyard to find a replacement. There, they meet an unkempt man who has only one eye. He does not even try to cover up the socket of the missing eye with a patch. He bemoans his situation: he cannot find a wife, for, who could like someone like him? he cannot find a better job, for, "Ain't so easy to get a job --not for a one-eye' man." The junkyard man presents a totally miserable life, with no hope for rehabilitation.

On the other hand, Tom Joad has undertaken the obligation to see his family to California to find work. The Joad farm was foreclosed, and they were cheated out of many of their expensive farming implements. Grandfather died on the road, and they buried him themselves. However, hope does not die. The Joads actively work towards a better future for themselves.

When Tom meets the man at the junkyard, he listens. Finally, he says, "Now, look-a-here, fella. You got that eye wide open...Ya just asking for it. Ya like it. Lets ya feel sorry for yaself. 'Course you can't get no woman with that empty eye flappin' aroun'...I knowed a hump-back...Make his whole livin' lettin' folks rub his hump for' all you got is one eye gone."

In קול דודי דופק, Rabbi Soloveitchik details two possible modes of the human condition. Man can either exist in the mode of fate, or he can rise to that of destiny. Fateful Man is one who lives in depressing reaction to the things that occur around him. He is an object -- events happen to him, and he does not initiate them. He lives trapped in the reality of "It is against your own will that you live." (Avot 4:29) When tragedy strikes, he cries out in pain and anguish, at the edge of the dark abyss of human reason. He cannot undestand the "why", and so retreats into a shell of pain and loneliness.[1]

The second possible dimension of life is that of a Man of Destiny. This Man is a subject -- and active initiator of events in the world around him. While it is true that "It is against his will that he is born and dies" (ibid.), Man of Destiny changes the interlude between those two events to, "By your own free will do you live". Although life may serve hardships and suffering, this Man chooses to overcome everything, and knows that what does not kill him will only succeed in making him stronger. Life is transformed from forced to motivated, from muted to resplendent with purpose.[2]

In brilliant color and authenticity, Steinbeck's characters fulfill these two opposite roles. The junkyard man is Rav Soloveitchik's classic Man of Fate. He as been dealt an ugly hand. What does he do with it? Nothing. He does not even attempt to hide his disfigurement, or keep himself clean. He wallows in his own filth and misery, taking perverse delight in how repulsive, rejected and lonely this makes him. He sees the happiness of others not as an offer of hope for himself, but as a teasing mockery of what he has become.

Tom, on the other hand, has his share of troubles as well. However, he views them as stepping stones on a path to a better life. He hears of the jobs out West, and decisively acts to bring himself that success. He takes the things that life doles out, and does his best to build for those around him, and for himself. He even remarks on other cripples, and how they use their disability to their advantage! Tom berates the junk-man for not following in their paths.

At one point, the junk-man seems to see the glimmer of destiny through his goggles of fate. He asks, "ya think a fella like me could get work? Black patch on my eye?" He sees the power of Tom's way, and wishes to come along. Tom calls, as he leaves the scrap-yard, "See ya maybe in California." The Man of Fate has been brought to the sweet waters of Destiny and has been given permission to drink. And yet, the junk-man is a tragic figure, for he is not able to lift himself out of his fateful misery. He "watched them go, and then he went through the iron shed to his shack behind. It was dark inside. He felt his way to his mattress on the floor, and he stretched out and cried in his bed, and the cars whizzing by on the highway only strengthened the walls of his loneliness." Steinbeck demonstrates how hard it can be to rise out of darkness of fate and into the breaking dawn of destiny.

And it is hard, indeed. However, precisely during the month of Nissan, our Torah teaches that each of us is ennobled with the ability to live a life of purpose and destiny, and we must actively choose to do so. As Rabbi Hirsch points out, the whole exodus story is a monumental lesson that fate does not have power over us. By any normal course of events, a nation of slaves that has been subjected to such ordeals as the Jews in Egypt would have remained in bondage, perhaps disappearing as the centuries passed. The story of the plagues and the subsequent redemption, demonstrate clearly that God is actively and immanently involved in human events. Fate was no match for God's active shift of human history. In the same way, fate is no match for the free will God has embedded within each of us. Only because we have free will, and Man's activities are not predetermined, can positive and negative commandments be binding, and can one be moral or immoral. Mired in sin or sadness, pain or depression, there is no situation in which the free will of humans cannot find a way to be active, to grow from suffering and promote a closer relationship with Hashem.

The Exodus which we re-live each year is a foundational message that our actions and reactions are not pre-determined, but fully controllable by our free will. May we, this Pesach, continue to transform our lot from slavery to our passions and fate, to the happy freedom of those who live motivated, free-willed lives, physically and spiritually.


[1] In truth, there seem to be two modalities to the Man of Fate: 1) Man needs to understand the whole of the divine calculus that encompasses theodicy. It is impossible for finite man to fathom the intricacies and complexity of the ways of God, and so this modality is destined to failure. Man cannot completely fathom God, and so he will come away unsatisfied and unrequited. 2) Man rejects the fundamental theory that there is sense to the occurrences in the universe. In the face of pain and suffering, this modality throws up its hands in anguish, sensing a cold, unfeeling universe, instead of a loving, immanent Creator. Both of these relate to Man of Fate, for their conclusion is the same: there is no Divine calculus, and nothing is balanced; justice is a cloud of smoke, and dissipates in the face of reality.

[2] Also here, there exist two streams that reinforce each other: 1) Man understands that although a full reckoning of Divine calculus is beyond his ken, he can understand the “why” as it relates to his field of activity: he can search his ways and return to God. “נחפשה דרכינו ונחקורה ונשובה עד ה'.” He may not understand all of the complexity, but what relates to him, he can fathom, and act to stem. 2) By divine order, Man also fights suffering and evil, to root out evil. This second halachik response to suffering is, paradoxically, the attempt to uproot it from the world. Man sees as his imperative, after gleaning purpose and lessons from suffering, to alleviate the evil of this world, and thus participate in God’s work.