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Senseless fate, meaningful destiny
by Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz

November 2, 2006 
11 Cheshvan, 5767 

Recently, the absurdity of fate has made headlines. A gunman bursts into Montreal’s Dawson College and kills an 18-year-old girl. A highway overpass collapses in Laval, killing five people. Beyond the headlines, everyone has been touched by an unexpected tragedy.

Fate’s seeming absurdity engenders strange reactions. Some become superstitious, nervously clutching rabbit’s feet and red strings for protection. Others become fatalistic. While visiting northern Israel during the Lebanese war, I asked our driver Ofer if he was worried about Kaytushas hitting us. He said no, because “when it’s your time, it’s your time.”

The question of fate’s injustice makes philosophers of us all. Some say they can explain every twist of fate, certain that someone else’s sins are the source of any suffering. Others are angry at God, upset that the utopian vision of their childhood has been shattered by reality.

I have an aversion to these philosophical ruminations. Personally, I prefer the view of R. Yanai, who says we don’t know why the wicked prosper or the righteous suffer. By accepting fate as a mystery, at least it isn’t an insult, an affront to the victims who are often blamed for their own misfortune.

Fate doesn’t require an answer, it requires a response. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik says there are two phases of life: fate and destiny. At times man is helpless, a passive object of fate. Other times, man can control his environment and is the master of his own destiny. Life fluctuates between fate and destiny. But even in our worst moments, fate doesn’t reign supreme. We can always choose our response.

That’s where a meaningful destiny is found. Do we respond with cowardice and confusion, or with humanity and spirituality?

Rabbi Seth Mandell directs camps for children who have lost a family member to terror. He began this project in memory of his son Koby, who was murdered in a terror attack. Seth told me a story about a girl in his camp who was so grief-stricken that she started cutting herself on the wrist. On the first day of camp, the girl’s counsellor saw the cut and remarked that “time heals all wounds.” The girl replied angrily, “It does not,” a reference to all wounds, psychic and physical. The counsellor persevered in befriending the girl. Toward the end of camp, she stopped cutting herself and the wound healed. Noticing this, the counsellor lightheartedly remarked, “I guess time does heal all wounds.” The girl responded, “No, it does not… But love heals all wounds.”

This is a formula for transforming fate into destiny. Fate may cut us deeply, leaving us hurt and confused. But with a bit of love, we can find a way to heal our wounds and reclaim control of our destiny.