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.
On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed – how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die, who in good time, and who by an untimely death, who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by wild beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague, who by strangulation and who by lapidation, who shall have rest and who wander, who shall be at peace and who pursued, who shall be serene and who tormented, who shall become impoverished and who wealthy, who shall be debased, and who exalted. But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severity of the decree.
For your praise is just as your name. You are slow to anger and quick to be appeased. For you do not desire the death of the condemned, rather, that they turn from their path and live and you wait for them until the day of their death, and if they repent, you receive them immediately. (It is true -) [For] you are their Creator and You understand their inclination, for they are but flesh and blood.
We come from dust, and return to dust. We labor by our lives for bread, we are like broken shards, like dry grass, and like a withered flower; like a passing shadow and a vanishing cloud, like a breeze that passes, like dust that scatters, like a fleeting dream. But You are the king who lives eternal.
(MG: the prayer ends with a brief attempt to defend free will.)
But repentance prayer and charity temper judgment’s severe decree.
My prayer: May our number not be up this year!
(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman. Also, the new God Squad podcast is now available.)
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