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Fate and Destiny

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan

God predetermines a person's basic lifespan, wealth and opportunities -- but leaves ample room for free choice.

In order to fulfill His purpose, God decreed that both good and evil exist in the world, and that each man fulfills his task in life by striving to acquire good traits and overcome evil traits in himself. For example, pride is a bad trait, while its opposite humility, is a good one. Mercy is a good trait, while callousness is its opposite. The quality of being happy with what one has is a good one, while it's opposite is bad. The same is true of all other traits.

In order to provide an environment for these traits to exist, God divided individuals into different stations in life. Each of these stations is then a test for a particular individual, allowing all these bad qualities to exist, while giving him the opportunity to strive against them and embrace the good.

The fulfillment of God's Torah also requires the social intercourse that results from these variations of station. Thus, for example, if wealth and poverty did not exist, there would be no opportunity for the rich to demonstrate either generosity or indifference to the poor who need their help. The poor likewise could not be tested to determine whether or not they would be satisfied and thank God for the little that they do have.

Whether a person is rich or poor, healthy or sickly, he can always choose good or bad.

The main task of Divine Providence in this world is therefore to set each person in his station in life in order that he may serve God according to his destiny. All things that God does in this world are directed toward this purpose. Some things directly affect the person involved, while others are used to set up chains of events to direct him toward his destiny.

Every person's station in life is a test, wherein he can choose either to serve God to the best of his ability or not. Whether a person is rich or poor, healthy or sickly, intelligent or dull, he can always make use of his qualities for good or for bad. Regarding this important principle, God told us through His prophet, "Let the wise man not glory in his wisdom, let the strong man not glory in his strength, and let the rich man not glory in his wealth. But if one would glory, let him glory in this: that he has intelligence and that he knows Me, that I am God, performing kindness, justice and righteousness on the earth, for in these things I delight" (Jeremiah 9:22-23).

Doing Your Best

Though a person's station in life might make it more difficult for him to do good, he is still required to use all this resources to serve God. For this reason, it is taught, "In all your ways know Him, and He will straighten your paths" (Proverbs 3:6). If a person's nature or environment tend to make it more difficult for him to serve God, then his reward will be that much greater, since reward is always gauged according to the effort expended. Similarly, in such a case, his punishment for disobeying God's commandments will be reduced, since God takes extenuating circumstances into consideration.

It all balances out fairly in the end.

On the other hand, one whose station in life makes it easy to serve God is punished all the more for failing to do so. Though providence makes it easier for some to serve God, and more difficult for others, the truth is that it all balances out fairly in the end.

This underscores the fact that, while it is true that God decrees a person's station, this does not excuse him from doing his best to serve God. Similarly, the fact that God decrees that a person should be poor is no excuse for the rich to withhold charity form him, since it was for this very reason that God created a world of contrasts. Likewise, although it may have been decreed that a person should be murdered, this does not excuse the killer, since God has many messengers.

Mazal Tov!

A person's circumstances are determined by an extremely large number of variables, depending on the laws of nature, his own effort, his merit, and his fortune or mazal. The most important of these is a person's fortune, since this generally acts as a limiting factor on both his merit and his effort. A person's fortune, in turn, is largely determined by his parentage, the time and place in which he lives, his society, his habits, and his occupation.

As an individual, a person is also part of his society. His fortune will therefore necessarily affect the entire group of which he is a part, and set up chains of events which may even affect all humanity. It is for this reason that a person's fortune cannot depend entirely on his own merit, but is rather determined largely by his place in God's overall plan. Accordingly, we are taught that a person's life span, his children, and his livelihood do not depend as much upon his merit as upon his fortune. God does not reorder His universal plan for the sake of a single individual.

As a person draws closer to God, however, he can rise above his fortune.

Our sages thus enumerated many things which depend upon fortune, even a Torah scroll in its ark. Although such things as life, livelihood and children are to some extent influenced by merit and prayer, in the majority of cases, they too are still circumscribed by one's fortune.

As a person draws himself closer and closer to God, however, and thereby enjoys a greater degree of providence, he can rise above his fortune. We are thus taught that fortune does not completely dominate Israel. The important thing to remember is that all is ultimately in God's hands, and no man really knows the extent to which God is protecting and guiding him in all his affairs.

Making the Effort

Though a person's fortune may be largely determined from birth, one can always change it by altering his circumstances. Sincere effort and hard work can also change a person's fortune, both in terms of his material as well as his spiritual standing. The Psalmist alluded to this when he sang, "A Song of Ascents. Happy [are you,] every one who fears God and walks in His ways. You shall eat the fruit of your effort. Happy are you, and goodness [is reserved] for you" (Psalms 128:1-2). "Happy are you" -- in this world, and "goodness is reserved for you" -- in the World to Come.

Likewise, though God may have decreed good for a person, he still has to work to obtain it, as the Torah tells us, "God your Lord has blessed you in all the work of your hands" (Deut. 2:7). The greatest blessing is that of the righteous, who find none of their efforts wasted. Regarding them the prophet said, "They shall not labor in vain nor bring forth for chaos, for they are the seed of God's blessed" (Isaiah 65:23).

However, there are certain areas in which all the effort in the world cannot bring one beyond the limits that God's plan has set for him. Scripture alludes to this when it states, "The blessing of God is what makes a person rich, and toil adds nothing to it" (Proverbs 10:22). For this reason we are taught that if one does not see a sign of success in an endeavor for five years, it is probably that he will never be successful in it. Likewise, we are taught that one should not be too forceful or headstrong in getting one's way, since all things have a time and place.

Chain of Events

God judges every individual with respect to his forebears who preceded him, his descendants who follow him, and the people of his generation, city and community who are associated with him. Of these, a person's fortune and destiny is influenced most strongly by his parentage. This is true both because of the effects of heredity and environment, as well as due to the moral values which people internalize through their parents. A very special providence is therefore bestowed on a child when he is conceived; at which time his hereditary traits and much of his fortune is determined. Similarly, an extra degree of providence is evidenced at childbirth.

The degree of providence required to bring about a marriage equals a miracle.

Each marriage sets up such an extremely complex chain of events as to be almost a world in itself. Therefore, the degree of providence required to bring about a marriage is as great as that required for a miracle. We are thus taught that one of the main tasks of providence is the making of matches, even to the extent of bringing people together from opposite ends of the earth.

Therefore, as soon as a child is conceived, God proceeds to set up a chain of events that will lead to his eventual marriage. Nevertheless, this may be constantly revised, since each person has free will, and one's choice of a wife will be affected by his moral values. Furthermore, like all other aspects of a person's destiny, this can be altered by merit and prayer. But after all is said and done, no matter what a person does, the making of a marriage is in God's hands. For a marriage to be successful, it must be made in heaven. It is therefore, written, "House and riches are bequeathed by one's parents, but a discriminating wife is from the Lord" (Proverbs 19:14).

Economic Fortunes

As important to the historic process as His control of human populations, is God's regulation of the world's economic life. Here again, we are taught that a major task of Divine Providence is determining each person's economic fortune and fitting it into God's overall plan. It is thus written, "God makes poor and makes rich; He brings low and lifts up high" (1-Samuel 2:7). Similarly, the Psalmist said, "For God is the Judge: He lowers one person down and raises up another" (Psalms 75:8).

The degree of providence required to set each individual in his economic station is as great as that required to produce a miracle. This is especially true since wealth affects different people in different ways, and therefore cannot be granted on the basis of merit alone. For this reason, the key to wealth remains in God's hand alone, and even the righteous have no promise of livelihood.

God knows what is best for each person, and measures out their livelihoods accordingly.

In general, the chain of events governing a person's economic fortunes is largely determined from the time of his conception. Besides this, however, each person is constantly judged, and his financial fortunes determined over periods of time. God tries to satisfy the needs and wants of every creature, as the Psalmist said, "You open Your hand and satisfy the desires of all living things" (Psalms 145:16) However, God also knows what is ultimately best for each person, and He measures out their livelihoods accordingly. King Solomon thus prayed, "Allot to every man according to all his ways -- for You know the heart of each -- for You alone know the hearts of men" (2 Chronicles 6:30).

One should have trust in God, and know that just as He gives life, so will He give sustenance. Nevertheless, one must also do one's share in planning for the future, in order not to be in the category of "Your life will hang in suspense" (Deut. 28:66). One who has complete trust in God is assured that he will be successful in all his endeavors.


Though a person's total life span is determined by heredity and environment, his days are largely predetermined from the time of his conception, and perhaps even generations earlier. It is thus written, "The days of a human being are few and full of trouble. He comes forth like a flower and is cut down; [his life] flees like a shadow and does not endure… His days are determined, the number of his months is with You. You have appointed his limits, beyond which he cannot pass" (Job 14:1-5).

When one lives out his appointed days, he dies without terror or suffering, like a lamp that goes out when its oil is depleted. Such a person is likened to a fruit which is harvested in its proper time, as it is written, "You shall come to your grave in ripe old age, like a full sheath of corn comes up in its season" (Job 5:26). It is a blessing to live out one's appointed time, as God promised, "I will make you live out full lives" (Exodus 23:26).

However, a person's days may be increased because of great merit, or decreased because of sin. It is thus written, "The fear of God prolongs one's days, but the years of the wicked shall be shortened" (Proverbs 10:27). A person can die before his time because of his wickedness or folly, as we are warned, "Do not be overly wicked or foolish; why should you die before your time?" (Ecclesiastes 7:17).

Ordinarily, a person is not punished by death except for his sins. There are times, however, that a person is punished by God removing His providence from him, leaving him to die by worldly accidents. Regarding this it is written, "One can be gathered up without [apparent] justice" (Proverbs 13:23). This is also true in times of universal judgment, when both the righteous and wicked are swept away together. Similarly, in a great majority of cases, early death is not caused by God's decree, but by the individual's own carelessness and intemperance.

Notwithstanding all this, every life that is taken by God is taken in judgment. In general, God tries to plan each person's death so that it will do him the most spiritual good. Thus, God might take the life of a wicked person to stop him from sinning further, or that of a righteous individual so that he need no longer battle the evil in himself. On the other hand, God may give the wicked additional years to repent, or take away years from the righteous lest they turn to evil. King Solomon thus wrote, "I have seen all kinds of things in the fleeting days: There was the righteous man who perished in his righteousness, and there was the wicked man who lived long in his evildoing" (Ecclesiastes 7:15).

God does not desire the death of the righteous, as it is written, "Precious in God's eyes is the death of His saints" (Psalms 116:15). When a good person dies before his time, he often receives the same reward that he would have had for his full lifetime. Similarly, by making efficient use of their time, many righteous people have accomplished in a short time what others cannot accomplish in a long lifetime.

From "The Handbook of Jewish Thought" (Vol. 2, Maznaim Publishing). Reprinted with permission.


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