Ain Mazel L’Yisrael:
There is No Fate Among Israel
Mazel Tov! Yes, I said it and I will say it again: Mazel Tov! First, Mazel tov to all of you who had a simchah this year—maybe it was a newborn baby, a grandbaby, a new marriage, a graduation, a new job, a new house, and the list goes on and on.
Second, mazel tov for making it here today, to celebrate another year together, for as we all know, our health is a sacred gift that we cannot afford to take for granted. So let’s say it together on the count of a three, a communal mazel tov: 1…2…3….MAZEL TOV!
These two little words can make just about anyone’s day. Even for those of us who grew up only knowing a few Hebrew words, Mazel Tov ranks right up there with Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah. But if you were to ask just about anyone—including the pop sensation Will.I.Am—Mazel Tov is one of the few Hebrew phrases that everyone in modern America must know.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, we use Mazel Tov to mean–congratulations. However, this phrase is much more complex than it first appears. “Tav” is the Yiddish pronunciation of Tov—which means “good.” And Mazel literally means a star or constellation. So when you wish someone Mazel Tov, you are really saying: “Your stars have aligned,” or “Your fate was sealed by destiny.”
While this may sound strange to the modern-ear—this notion was quite common in the Ancient Near East where the majority of cultures believed that one’s fate was laid out at birth and set in motion by the movement of the stars and planets. From ancient Mesopotamia, to Egypt and Greece, and eventually to Rome, even the most sophisticated intellectuals believed that one’s destiny was based on the configuration of the planets or the time of one’s birth. For example, if you were born on Sunday, the Sun ruled your universe. On Monday, it was the moon. And on Tuesday, your destiny was tied to the planet Mars, and the god of warfare and rebellion.
Similarly, each hour of the day was tied to one of the seven planets. Depending on which hour you were born meant that you would be more melancholy or upbeat, more intellectual or emotional, and so on. But if you wanted to be strong and confident—and instead you were meek and timid—well, so be it—because you were simply born on the wrong day or the wrong hour!
Remember that saying: “There is no sense in crying over spilt milk”? Well, did you know that this famous proverb was first recorded ~2500 years ago by the Greek philosopher Sophocles (450 BCE). This quote actually means: Since your fate is tied to the stars, there is no sense in trying to change the outcome of your life—or for that matter, crying about it! And for thousands of years this was the dominant and accepted worldview until the establishment of Judaism.
As Reform Congregations throughout the country read today, we are taught in the Book of Deuteronomy (Parashat Nitzavim, 30:19): “This day, I call upon the heaven and the earth as witness, I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.”
As the Torah teaches, God lays out a choice between life and death, blessing and curse—but in the end, the choice is ours to make! Nothing about our future is written in the stars.
The idea that we are commanded to “choose life” is one of the most powerful notions in the Torah. Perhaps this is why the beginning of this verse is so often overlooked, which states: This day, I call upon the heaven and the earth as my witness. But why does the Torah teach us that the heavens and earth stood as God’s witness? Don’t witnesses need to be animate objects?
As the Rabbis teach in a midrash (Sifre 32:1): “God said to Israel, ‘Look at the heavens which I created to serve you. Have they ever changed their ways? Has the sphere of the sun ever failed to rise from the east to illuminate the entire world.” (Ecclesiasties 1:5). By serving as God’s witness, the midrash teaches us that the heavens and earth no longer control our fate. Rather, they are here to help us, not to control us.
In other words, we are commanded to stop blaming our lives on bad luck, fate or external factors beyond our control. Instead, we are urged to “choose life.” While this may seem like obvious advice—let me suggest that we may not be that different from our pre-modern counterparts.
How many of us have succumbed to the idea that “bad news comes in threes?” Or, as they say, “misery loves company.” Or how many times in our lives do we simply “give up” because we are having a bad week, a bad month, or even a bad year?
The problem is, when we are prepared for something bad to happen, we are bound to find…or even create it. This is what sociologists call a self-fulfilling prophecy.
At some point or another, we have all heard this kind of fatalism from ourselves or from our loved ones: “It was just my luck to have lost my job and my home in the same year.” Or, “Since I didn’t get into the top school of my choice, there is no point in working so hard next time.” Or perhaps, a more passive form of fatalism, “I have been having so many health issues this year—what’s one more?!”
Many of us have had moments in our lives where we throw our hands up in the air and cry: c’est la vie—such is life! There is nothing we can do about it, so we might as well just go with the flow. But as we bring in the Jewish New Year, I beg to differ. In fact, the entire message of the high holy days teaches us that the future is ours to create.
The Rabbis taught that when we celebrate the New Year, we are