Fate or Destiny? Moving Forward

As I headed out the door to last week’s Interfaith Prayer Service at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, I stopped for a split second, thinking “I’m going to be sitting there for quite a while. I should take something to read.” Uncertain about bringing any kind of electronic device with me  other than my cellphone (“No bags!,” they said), I grabbed a book from my overflowing bookshelf — one of the slimmest I could find. It was a copy of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s Kol Dodi Dofek – The Voice of My Beloved Knocks.  I had read part of the book years ago, but was interested in the fuller work. Since it was small, I grabbed it and headed to the service.

As it turned out, I spent most of the several hours I waited talking with friends, which was, in and of itself, soothing.  By the way, virtually every clergy friend in the row behind me had an iPad! Even so, in spurts, I cracked open the Rav’s book, and began from the start.  The first essay in the book is entitled “The Righteous Suffer.”  I found it quite ironic to be reading this exposition on the bad things that happen to good people in this world, while awaiting the start of an interfaith service to heal a community — and a world — deeply wounded,  physically, emotionally and spiritually, by the suffering of innocent people at the hands of actors who were at that point, as yet unknown.

In this opening essay, Rav Soloveitchik posits that we live our lives in a world in which there are two realms of existence: fate and destiny. In part, he writes: “Judaism has always distinguished between an existence of fate and an existence of destiny. What is the nature of the existence of fate? It is an existence of compulsion, an existence of the type described by the Mishnah, ‘Against your will do you live out your life.’ (Avot 4:29), a pure factual existence, one link in a mechanical chain, devoid of meaning, direction, purpose, but subject to the forces of the environment unto which the individual has been cast by providence, without prior consultation. The ‘I’ of fate has the image of an object. As an object, he appears as made and not as maker…”  (Kol Dodi Dofek, pages 2-3) Fate, holds the Rav, is that over which we have no control.  To be sure, the feeling of a lack of control was widespread and deeply felt last week.

Rav Soloveitchik then proceeds to explain his understanding of destiny, which he reads as a countervailing reality to fate as he asks,  “…What is the nature of the existence of destiny? It is an active mode of existence, one wherein man confronts the environment into which he was thrown, possessed of an understanding of his uniqueness, of his special worth of his freedom, and of his ability to struggle with his external circumstances without forfeiting either his independence or his selfhood. The motto of the ‘I’ of destiny is, “Against your will you are born and against your will you die, but you live of your own free will.” Man is born like an object, dies like an object, but possesses the ability to live like a subject, like a creator, an innovator, who can impress his own individual seal upon his life and can extricate himself from a mechanical type of existence and enter into a creative, active mode of being.” (Kol Dodi Dofek, pages 5-6)  In contrast to fate, destiny is the realm in which we can choose to act in order to impact our future — and that of the world around us.  The Rav’s message was a mighty powerful one to read sitting in that place  at that time.

Individually and collectively, last week was one in which we faced ultimate questions: Why do bad things happen to innocent people?  What drives individuals to act out in such horrific ways so as to cause such havoc and to inflict such suffering on so many people?  And there are many more questions out there – as well as resident in our kishkes. With one of the suspects in custody, there is a chance that  there may yet be some answers to some of our questions.  To be sure, no answers will restore what has been taken – the limbs and lives lost, the sense of celebration compromised nor the security breached.

In the days since Thursday’s service and Friday’s surreal events, I keep coming back to the question of how to respond to last week’s events, and of how we move forward in its aftermath.  Over Shabbat I was struck by the juxtaposition of our two Torah portions — Acharei Mot and Kedoshim.   Acharei Mot opens with reference to the death of two of Aaron’s sons after they offered eysh zarah – foreign fire on the altar. (Indeed, during Torah study on Shabbat morning, one participant, Barbara caught us all with her linkage of Aaron’s two sons and their misguided offering of “foreign fire” and the two brothers who terrorized our city with their “foreign fire.”)  Kedoshim — “Holy matters” deals with some of most inspiring and enduring values of our Jewish tradition.  Citing an interpretation I had heard years ago, in my comments I noted that Acharei Mot — “after death” we must strive to find our way back to the path of Kedoshim — the pursuit of holiness.

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