Good fortune and justice. Thoughts on Parashat Ree.

Menachem Mirski –

Good fortune and justice. Thoughts on Parashat  Ree.


“Every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts. This shall be the nature of the remission: every creditor shall remit the due that he claims from his fellow; he shall not dun his fellow or kinsman, for the remission proclaimed is of the [Eternal]. You may dun the foreigner; but you must remit whatever is due you from your kinsmen. There shall be no needy among you—since the [Eternal] your God will bless you in the land that the [Eternal] your God is giving you as a hereditary portion – if only you heed the [Eternal] your God and take care to keep all this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day; For the [Eternal] your God will bless you as He has promised you: you will extend loans to many nations, but require none yourself; you will dominate many nations, but they will not dominate you!” (Deuteronomy 15:1-6.)


If we take the last of the above verses out of context, we can interpret it in many different ways. Jewish chauvinists (they can be found in every ethnic or religious group) can view it as an expression of “Jewish superiority”,  legitimized by the supreme, Divine mandate. Anti-Semites will see in it a similar proclamation, adding to it also several other ideas, such as a theory about a Jewish conspiracy aimed at bringing this vision to life. However, this verse appears in the context of various laws regarding social justice. Happiness, prosperity, and – as a consequence – also the strength of a society are a result of the relations between individuals and groups in a given society and they depend on how just these relations are. If the notion of justice is commonly respected and is the subject of an in-depth reflection carried  out  by the ones in power (and thus is not viewed in a primitive way, such as a view claiming in a nutshell that  those who have not been successful in their lives have only themselves to blame for it etc.), then the right conditions exist for a just division of goods and for an efficient, societal cooperation in every aspect of life. This (among others) establishes the fundaments of a strong society and of a state which has a chance to dominate (after fulfilling several other conditions) over other states and societies which are at odds with justice and which have not established just rules for their common, social life.

Of course, there are countries and societies which are being ruled unjustly and which in spite of that are strong and dominate over others in various ways – militarily, with regards to their numerousness and so on.  However, we shall not take such systems into account, since in general a notion of a state ruled by a dictatorship and by means of violence is an anti-thesis of a Biblical vision of a state and of societal relations.

The topic of justice is extremely vast, so today we shall focus on only one of its aspects: on luck and its role in achieving success, since the above mentioned verses discuss the need to help those who have not achieved material success in their lives. This is necessary for the sake of maintaining order in a given society. Here I’d like to pose  the  following question: Is success the result of (exclusively) one’s own work and skills, such as intelligence or cleverness, or perhaps is it simply luck that plays a key role in achieving success? Several psychological studies conducted on this topic in the past two decades have shown that men and women perceive the role of luck in achieving success differently and that they tend to give different answers to these questions. Men have a strong tendency to ascribe their success to their own skills, whereas women – to luck. And when it comes to failures, the opposite is the  case – women  generally tend to blame their own shortcomings – their lack of skills, knowledge etc. – for their failures, whereas men usually explain their failures by putting the blame on outside factors, such as bad luck.   

And what does our tradition have to say about this? We know that essentially it distances itself (and forbids) various fortune-telling practices aimed at summoning good fortune. However, the theme of luck appears in Biblical, Rabbinical as well as Kabbalistic sources. We read about it for the first time in the context of the birth of Gad, Jacob’s son:

“Leah said, ‘What luck!’ So she named him Gad.’ (Genesis 30:11.)

Rashi in his first explanation of this verse explains the meaning of the name “Gad” as mazal tov, which indeed literally means a stroke of luck, good fortune  (in common use mazal tov of course means: “Congratulations”). But in fact the notion of luck and of believing in it in our tradition is not so obvious at all. In the Talmud (Shabbat 156a) in the context of a discussion concerning astrology we can find a statement “ein mazal le’Israel,” which literally means, “There is no good fortune for Israel”, but its appropriate translation is, “There is no constellation  (of stars) for Israel”. In other words, the success or failure of Israel is not “written in the stars”. And therefore Jews should not believe in horoscopes. Maimonides links this mazal to “the laws of natural history,” and in his opinion the  history of Israel is not subjected to them.

And this means that there is also no predestination. Even if something is “written in the stars” or in history, Jews do not have to follow it and ultimately are not  subjected to it, since they have the power to transform their fate, even if it happens to be “unfortunate”. This being said, does this mean that in Judaism the typical “male” answer to the question of luck and its role in life is prevalent?

Not at all. In a different place the Talmud (tractate Moed Katan 28a) states that “the length of life, children, and sustenance all depend not upon one’s merit, but upon fate”). And therefore – upon good fortune. Whereas the Kabbalistic interpretation of ein mazal le’Israel states that this good fortune comes from a place which is beyond time and space, beyond nature and its cause-and-effect relations, beyond all possible levels of human spirituality; it stems from a place called ein sof (“without end”), i.e. from the highest spiritual reality of God, which is above all His manifestations  and de facto above His will, intentions and actions. We could even say that our good fortune stems from a “Divine subconsciousness”.

To conclude, our sages’ answer to the question of good fortune is neither typically “male” nor typically “female” – it encompasses both of these components within itself. Our well-being and success in life depend both on factors which lie within ourselves and over which we do have control, such as our efforts, work and skills, as well as on factors over which we have no control, i.e. on that which people call good fortune. That good fortune which drips on us (the noun mazal has the same root as the verb linzol, which actually means to drip) has its source in ein sof, and thus in the deepest dimension of Divine reality – in “Divine subconsciosness”. In a way God by giving us laws aimed at introducing justice in the human world is correcting the decrees of his „subconsciousness”, so that happiness can be experienced by everyone who has invited God to be part of their life.   Shabbat  Shalom!

Menachem Mirski

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

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