The God Squad: When your number is up

Rabbi Marc Gellman, Tribune Content Agency on

Q: Rabbi Gellman, is it God’s decision as to when our time is up? Does he have it written in the heavens what the date is? I’ve heard many times about “when your number is up” that God has chosen that time when you’re born.

Your answer will decide a discussion. – (From C)

A: Thanks, dear C, for bringing up one of the top five questions of all time. Is it fate or free will that determines our destiny? If it is fate, then what we do doesn’t matter. This is depressing to many who do not want to believe that our life expectancy is nothing more than a toss-up. What is the purpose of trying to live a healthy life? What is the purpose of trying to avoid life-threatening dangers? As you say, if your number is up, your number is up.

On the other hand, many people like to feel that fate controls their future. This fatalistic view gives them comfort that they can live their lives without anxiety. They are secure in the belief that God has a plan for them that he has a preordained and predestined timetable. They can just live every day as it comes.

The free will folks could never live an untroubled life with such a fatalistic worldview. For them, God gave us free will so that we could make free and real choices. If those choices do not affect our life, then why did God give us free will in the first place? A diet of veggies is only superior to a diet of ice cream if those veggies extend your life, and if they do extend your life then there is no final certainty about when your number is up.

One of the most powerful and troubling prayers in the Jewish liturgy for these High Holy Days is called the Unetaneh Tokef. This prayer embraces fatalism. Here is a part of the translation:


Unetaneh Tokef (Sefaria translation)

We lend power to the holiness of this day. For it is tremendous and awe filled, and on it your kingship will be exalted, your throne will be established in loving-kindness, and you will sit on that throne in truth.

It is true that you are the one who judges, and reproves, who knows all, and bears witness, who inscribes, and seals, who reckons and enumerates. You remember all that is forgotten. You open the book of records, and from it, all shall be read. In it lies each person's insignia.

And with a great shofar it is sounded, and a thin silent voice shall be heard. And the angels shall be alarmed, and dread and fear shall seize them as they proclaim: behold! the Day of Judgment on which the hosts of heaven shall be judged, for they too shall not be judged blameless by you, and all creatures shall parade before you as a herd of sheep. As a shepherd herds his flock, directing his sheep to pass under his staff, so do you shall pass, count, and record the souls of all living, and decree a limit to each person’s days, and inscribe their final judgment.


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