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Does God Pull the Strings?  #791

08/18/2023 03:44:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Shoftim

    Does God Pull the Strings?

During the early-1970s, for a brief period, my mother became a local folk hero.

She gained a reputation as a foreteller of the future.

Each year, our synagogue held a fund-raising “bazaar.” Aside from selling used clothing, furniture, kitchen items and chachkes to those in need, our shul set up booths where volunteers offered congregants and others an array of services in exchange for donations.

For example, lawyers and accountants provided legal and tax advice, but my mother’s booth was among the most popular.

She read tea leaves, and though she thought it was all for fun, others took it a bit more seriously.

While my father was known for leading services when we did not have a rabbi, it was my mother who—for a brief period --commanded everyone’s attention.

Mom was so proud that her tea-leaf readings had raised $50 for the shul, but she always added, “People, of course, knew it was all for fun.”

But later, she once mused, “So many want answers about the future.”

Here are some of her most famous predictions that almost always came true.

“During the next few days you will receive something very important in the mail.”

“In the next year, you will be taking a trip somewhere.”

“You may be nervous about something that is about to happen, but don’t worry, things will be okay.”

“You will soon receive a phone call from someone you did not expect.”

The phone would ring for the next few weeks as people would marvel at my Mom’s ability to predict the future. And she—a model of humility—would usually say, “I’m glad we made some money for the shul.”

But the idea of predicting the future stuck with me as I observed this phenomenon.

If only we were afforded a little peak into the future. If only we knew.

Indeed, Judaism places value upon the messages we receive in our dreams. And the Talmud does lend some credence to astrology—but it also cautions us never to base our lives on external signs.

Our Sages warn that if the future could somehow be predicted, there would be no purpose to rising each morning.

In this week’s Torah portion Shoftim (Judges), magistrates are instructed on how to administer justice fairly.

The parashah begins with the words, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” This is one of the few cases in the Torah where a word is repeated for emphasis.

The Talmud is vigilant about having judges maintain their integrity and impartiality. 

It recounts stories of defendants or accusers who removed a floating feather from a judge’s head, covered spit on the street to protect a judge’s feet or offered a hand to a judge stepping off a boat.

In all three cases, the judges recused themselves from pending cases.

That’s probably why the Torah mentions the word “justice” twice. Whether on the bench or at work, at home or in our interactions, all of us face temptations that divert our attention from true justice. 

So, the Torah reminds us to pursue a life of meaning and justice, never to be polluted or sidetracked by easy answers from “beyond.”

One Talmud story tells about a prediction the great Rabbi Akiva receives from Babylonian astrologers.

They warn him that on the day of her marriage, his daughter will be bitten fatally by a snake. Rabbi Akiva is obviously alarmed.

But as the wedding day passes, while Rabbi Akiva is relieved that his daughter has survived, he wonders why, and asks her to review her day.

She shares that while she was enjoying her festive meal, over the loud noise of the party, she heard a knock at the door. It was a homeless person asking for food.

She rose and handed her plate to the pauper. As she prepared to retake her seat, rearranging her windblown hair, she stuck her broach pin into the wall, piercing the eye of the snake poised to kill her. The snake died.

Had she remained seated, she would have perished. But because she performed an act of charity—because she re-entered life from a different perspective—she survived.

In response to the astrologers’ warning, the Talmud concludes there is, “no constellation which oversees the Jewish people.” Rather, Jews believe in free will.

In exactly one month, during Rosh Hashanah services, we will read the prayer that poses the ageless question, “Who will live and who will die?” Our rabbis conclude that prayer with the idea that, “repentance, prayer and charity” can improve whatever verdict awaits us.

The prayer’s “punchline” teaches that we can change our life’s trajectory through introspection and prayer, and—based perhaps on the example of Rabbi Akiva’s daughter—by extended a helping hand to others.

This week, the Torah stresses that life’s answers cannot be determined through the visions of soothsayers and psychics.

Rather what awaits us is determined largely by our commitment to improve, and by our willingness to let go of what weighs us down.

As much as I love my mother, she was the first to admit that she did not hold the answers to the future.

She taught my brother and me that our capacity to be of service to family, friends and community—by our kindness and consideration of others—has a significant impact on our future.

And that is what the High Holiday prayer means when it teaches that it is not so much God who pulls life’s strings, but rather our commitment to reflect and improve in the year to come.

For it is not psychics—or perhaps even God—who most influence our pursuit of happiness and meaning during the next year.

Rather, the future rests within our behavior—through our deeds, through our hearts and, most of all, through our true commitment to become someone better.

Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem. Kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Fri, September 29 2023 14 Tishrei 5784