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
Rather, this symbolic collapse of time between today and our primordial world, means that we are given a clean slate every year from from which to create and mold our own destiny. Franz Rosensweig, a famous modern Jewish philosopher, taught that during the High Holidays we are not being judged for our past sins; but rather, on our intentions for the new year.
Is our intention to truly move forward mentally, emotionally and spiritually? Or, have we resigned ourselves to believe that the way things are now, are the way things always have to be? In other words, are we prepared to believe that change is not just possible– but probable? If we understand Yom Kippur from this perspective, one could argue that we are not simply standing on the edge of a new year; but rather, on the edge of eternity.
While this may sound hyperbolic, I believe this is exactly what our sages wanted us feel. They wanted us to grapple with the awe and grandeur of this day in order to teach us that the new year is not just about writing a new chapter in an old book; but rather, it is about writing an entirely new book every year—that is, if we have the courage to do so.
The truth is, the rabbis of the 1st and 2nd Century [CE] struggled with this very notion. Many of them believed that mazel, or one’s fate, did indeed control the future. (BT Shabbat 156a-b) These early sages argued “yeish mazal l’Yisral, Israel does have a star, or a destiny.”
But only a generation later, the Amor’a’im, the Rabbis of the 3rd-5th Century [CE], argued that their former colleagues were mistaken. Their belief system had been overly influenced by the surrounding culture. As Rabbi Yochanan argues: Ain Mazel L’Yisrael—there is no destiny or stars among Israel. But how do the Rabbis know this?
Because it is taught in the Talmud that when Abraham was childless and feared that he was too old to bear children, God came to him and said (Gen 15:5): “Look toward the heaven and count the stars… [your offspring will be as numerous] as these stars.” In disbelief, Abraham responded: “Master of the universe, I have seen my astrological sign and I am not fit to have a son.”
And then in a world-shattering statement, God says to Abraham: Go out from your astrology! The Hebrew here is incredibly powerful because the word tzei has two meanings. Literally, it means—“to go out.” Therefore, it could simply mean that God is telling Abraham to go outside and gaze at the stars. But the word tzei can also mean to overcome. Thus, in the context of this midrash it is far more likely that God commands Abraham to overcome his self-fulfilling prophecy. As God says to Abraham: What are you worried about? That Jupiter is standing in the east? I will move it and make it stand in the West?
As the descendants of Abraham, we are taught that the stars do not control our fate. And yet, have we resigned ourselves to a life filled with Abraham’s fatalism by telling ourselves that we will always be overwhelmed or overworked, over-tired or over-stressed, or simply stuck forever in our old ways? Or, can we identify with the Rabbis who taught: Ain Mazel L’Yisrael—there is no fate among Israel!
On Yom Kippur, we are here to remind ourselves that we make our path by walking, and our path can be different if we have the audacity to choose “life” instead of fate. But this kind of resolve cannot be sustained in solitude.
We must learn to lean on our loved ones, as well as, this community, to help us transform the Yeish Mazel L’Yisrael into Ain Mazel L’Yisrael.
On a personal level, we must begin to believe that we are more than our shortcomings and our failures, or our sicknesses and even our successes. Our future is not tied to what has come before us.
On an interpersonal level, we must begin to believe that if we can change, so can others. If we want to be given the benefit of the doubt, we must also give that benefit to others. We must believe that friendships and relationships can grow and change for the better if we really put the time and effort into maintaining them.
On a communal, national and global level—the message of Ain Mazel L’Yisrael means that we have a choice. We can resign ourselves to believe that the world is spinning out of control, or we can do our small, little part to set it straight. We can fall prey to the fatalistic belief that homelessness and poverty will always exist, or we can take action. We can believe that war and famine are inevitable, or we can learn to fill our world with peace and understanding in small and incremental ways.
As Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook taught: The righteous do not complain of the dark; rather, they work to increase the light; they do not complain of evil, but they increase justice; they do not complain of heresy, but they increase faith; and they do not complain of ignorance, rather, they increase wisdom.
My hope is that this year, as a CBB community, we can work to increase our wisdom through an initiative that is being spearheaded by the Social Action Roundtable, which is a group of approximately 15 congregants (led by our Social Action Chair Bob Ingrum and our board member Evely Laser Schlensky) who have made it their mission to figure out how we can to transform the notion of Yeish Mazel L’Yisrael into Ain Mazel L’Yisrael.
We invite you to join us this fall and winter on a journey we are calling Lech Lechah—where we will go forth into our local community to meet with the leaders of grassroots organizations so we can increase our knowledge about what is happening within our own community. You are welcome to join us for one—or all of the forums—and there will be more information forthcoming on our website and in the weekly emails. In the meantime, if you are interested in being a part of this transformative process, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And if you are at all suspect of what a few dedicated people can do to make a difference in the world, need I remind you what happened when you all put your hearts and minds together to create a preschool in Rwanda, or the solar panels or our roof, or how our teens raised money for the Tsunami victims in Japan. The list goes on an on, and yet we maintain a healthy level of skepticism.
But if you are still suspect, I want to share with you one last story. A little over a month ago a friend of mine told me that one of her friends—was suffering from an incredibly rare form of ovarian cancer– so rare that there are only about 300 cases in the entire world. In the middle of this summer, Joey, who is in her early 30s, was told by her doctors that she only had a few more months to live.
Her last hope was to receive a Genome Sequence Test so that they could find a form of chemo that was more specific to what she was facing. But, unfortunately, and not that uncommonly, her insurance wouldn’t cover the cost of the nearly $10,000 test.
When my friend learned about Joey’s dilemma, she could have become hopeless and despondent. But instead, she decided to act. She and her friends started an online fundraising effort through Facebook and other social media tools.
Honestly, when I heard about my friend’s project I had two simultaneous reactions: First, I pulled out my checkbook. Second, I had very little hope that they could raise so much money in short order—especially since their fundraising efforts were aimed at our peers in our 20s and 30s. But lo and behold, in less than 48 hours they raised $10,000!
Because of my friend’s determination and her ability to believe that Ain Mazel L’Yisrael—Joey has received the test, as well as some new treatments that have stopped her tumors from growing larger. While there is no cure for this particular type of cancer, she is home with her family, while just a month ago the doctors had told her she should be putting her paperwork in order.
What my friend taught me, and what I hope it can teach all of us, is that it is never the end. If we can suspend our disbelief for even one minute, we can change someone’s life.
So my parting question is: What would it feel like for us to carry the banner of the sages that came before us, and say to the world: Ain Mazel L’Yisrael.
I am asking is because I am afraid that if we do not honor this aspect of our tradition, no one else will.
As Jews, this is our mandate.
As Jews standing on the edge of a new year, this is our obligation.
As Jews standing on the edge of eternity, this is our birthright.
And so, every time we wish one another Mazel Tov in these halls or outside, I truly hope that the words… Ain Mazel L’Yisrael will echo in our ears and that we will ask ourselves: Have we succumbed to the idea that what will be, will be? Or can we reorient our hearts, our lives and our minds to believe that change is not only possible, but probable.
 Jastrow 587