Fate or destiny?

Rabbi Arturo Kalfus

It is often said that the only things guaranteed in life are death and taxes.

So, thinking about death, let me share this story:

A Rabbi, a Priest and a Minister go to a bar. They sit down and one asks: What would you like people to say at your funeral? What would you like your eulogy to be about?

The Priest answers first: I would like people to say about me that I was an angelical being, that I never hurt a soul, that I was so kind, that I loved God. ..

Then the protestant Minister says: Well, I would like people to say that I was charitable, that I was engaged in acts of loving kindness, that I was able to be a real pastor to my flock…

and you Rabbi, What would you like people to say at your funeral?

He answered,… LOOK, he is moving!!!

Surely none of us wants to die. And in spite of it, these HH are like a rehearsal of our own death. We are trying to understand our life as if today were our last day on earth.

Is our future predestined? Today, we can enter the synagogue with a begging attitude. We can implore God, “please extend my life for another year! Give me, give, give me”…  But we can also enter the synagogue with the attitude of a spiritual warrior. I am ready to confront what I have done this past year. I am ready to face my troubled past. I am ready to face where I am stuck in my life. I am ready to reflect on my sins, my actions and omissions. What will it be for you this year? Do you want to spend our time together during these HH as a passive petitioner, asking God for goodies, or as a human being ready to look inside and do the required spiritual battle?

I believe that we have some ability to choose our path, to change our destiny and to outsmart fate. We are not bound to a future that is totally out of our control.

Our past does not have to determine our future.

If we change how we act in the world, we can alter the future we have created for ourselves. Through repentance, prayer and works of charity, or, in other words, practices of self-reflection, personal improvement and service to the world, we can transform ourselves and the course we are on. High Holidays are really a reminder that the past does not have to be our destiny and that our actions do matter.

Some people say when they don’t keep a resolution: I guess it is my fate to be this way. It is my fate, my upbringing, my limited opportunities, my obstacles and pitfalls.

Imprisoned by fate. Unavoidable, predetermined, decreed. Inevitable.

Rolo May, one the most eminent psychologists of the 20th century described four realities that can determine our fate:

The cosmic: We are born and we will die.

The Genetic: We can’t change the genes we have inherited yet

The Cultural: We are born and conditioned by a particular culture

The Circumstantial: We are born perhaps in a country ravaged by war or maybe we are born at a time of economic depression or recession

But as powerful as these four realities are, our Jewish tradition teaches us, that we can overcome, that we can modify, that we can change.

Fate is chance, destiny is choice. The greatest choice we can make is our response to that which life throws our way. And if we do that, we can begin to feel free.

Rabbi Burt Siegel puts it beautifully: He writes, “The understanding that we don’t have to be stuck in the mud of our Fate is what I would call spiritual maturity. Spiritual maturity is going beyond Fate and its consequences. What comes with spiritual maturity is knowing that whatever happens, we have the capacity to respond in a way that leads to life”.

Recently I saw a movie about the life of Stephen Hawking, the physicist that has Low Geriggs disease. He did not succumb to Fate when diagnosed early on in his life. He said No to fate and yes to destiny. He married, had children, wrote books and continues to surprise us with his reflections on life and the universe.

What would have happened if Beethoven would have stopped composing after he became deaf? If he had collapsed because of his fate, we would not have had the pleasure of most of his masterpieces.

There are people who are able to twist their fate into a new and even transcendent destination. These are people who refuse to accept what life has thrown at them.

On this Rosh Hashanah, as we confront the demons and the circumstances of our past, let’s fight what we can from our circumstance and our Fate, and struggle to achieve a meaningful destiny.

On this HH, the agenda of our soul should be enlarged. If we don’t, as Jung said, “we walk in shoes too small”.

One of my favorite writers, James Hollis, asks the following questions to help us affirm a freer destiny. See if they can inspire you today:

Where do you feel stuck?

What will happen to you, if you would not bear your fears, and you stay stuck?

Can you risk being a larger person?

Can you bear the pain of growth, over the pain of remaining afraid, small and lost?

Can you accept that, at the end of your life, you were not really here?

Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist, writer and Holocaust survivor is an example of an individual who refused to accept his fate. After surviving the concentration camps, Frankl wrote in his important book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to one thing, finding meaning. Those who found meaning, even in the most horrendous circumstances were far more resilient to suffering than those who did not. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms- to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”

Victor Frankl refused to be a victim of fate and circumstances. He affirmed his freedom of choice offering him internal freedom.

So let’s say that this past year you lost a dear one, or that you got divorced or that you had a bad accident. You could be crushed emotionally and be dependent on your fate. You could have given up on living. Or you can rebound becoming more resilient to suffering and charting a new destiny, a new future. Whatever difficulties you may have experienced this past year, you can choose how to respond. Your personal circumstance and fate, does not have to determine your future.

When you think about the prophets of Israel, these are great examples of individuals that actively decided to change fundamentally the course of their lives. When Moses was chosen by God at the Burning Bush, Moses initially refused, not once but five times. Moses was not immediately ready to affirm a new future for his life and all the Israelites. He hesitated. He was ambivalent. He feared taking a larger responsibility which would lead him to a larger and more meaningful life. After several tries, Moses changed, and became ready to assume a new journey of personal and communal liberation. Moses, according to a Midrash, was the only person who noticed the bush which was burning. That was the initial sign that he was ready to bury his fate and choose a new destiny.

But you don’t need to be a prophet to change your fate. As a Bat Mitzvah project a student invited her friends and family to bring socks to donate to the homeless during a cold winter. The Bat Mitzvah project was so powerful to this child that her parents organized a bigger event the following year. The child wrote letters to sock companies and requested their donations. By the end of the following winter this child had hundreds of socks to donate to the homeless. The following year, this family asked other congregations to join in the effort. This time, thousands of socks were collected and donated during the winter months.

Each one of us can change our fates.

Speaking about overcoming fate. Before every HH, I, like many other Rabbis, take time to reflect, to read and to think about which themes I will choose to share with you. This process is not an easy one. I go through a lot of internal struggles until I find a theme that calls me to develop it into a message for my congregation.

As I was working on this sermon one afternoon, I took some time off to eat lunch and watch some TV. By chance, or some will say, by Divine design, I settled on watching a movie called “The Fault in our Stars”. It appeared interesting from the very beginning so I left the remote on the table, and began to watch. I was so thrilled, so touched by the movie that I decided to change direction on this sermon that I was preparing. For me, it was more important to follow this strong emotional lead rather than to settle in something I had started. I left Fate behind me, to embrace this new unknown direction.

So, what this movie is all about, “The Fault in Our Stars”?

First, it is based on a book written by John Green. I am told that it is very popular with teenage girls. “The fault in our Stars” is the account of two adolescents who both have serious cancer. They meet by chance in a cancer support group, becoming friends. Together, they struggle to enjoy life in spite of the odds against them.  The female lead is Hazel and the male lead is Gus. Eventually, cancer returns to Gus and spreads through his body. It is at that moment that he says to Hazel, he wishes that he could leave a grand impact on the world before he dies. Gus wants to live an extraordinary life in the short time that he has.

Hazel takes offense to it and tells Gus that he doesn’t need anything extraordinary because she and her parents love him and that should be enough.

It is something for us to reflect: Making a life extraordinary, does not necessarily mean achieving grand accomplishments. Sometimes the love you have is enough.

One of the many suggestive elements in this movie is that Hazel and Gus ask each other to write a eulogy for the other.

Hazel writes reflecting on the love that was developing, in spite of the terminal diagnosis: “There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There is a bigger set of infinite numbers between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities. But Gus my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I’m grateful”.

“You gave me a forever within the numbered days and I’m grateful”. They could have been crushed by their cancer diagnosis. They could have retreated from the world. Their anger at their physical condition could have led them to bow down to their fate. But they found a way to risk loving and being loved. That is extraordinary!

Hazel’s eulogy for Gus continues: “Without pain, how could we know joy? This is an old argument in the field of thinking about suffering… but suffice it to say that the existence of broccoli does not, in any way, affect the taste of chocolate”.

Gus’s eulogy for Hazel is also very moving. Acknowledging the horrific pain of experiencing the death of a loved one,  Gus writes: “I love her. I am so lucky to love her. You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, but you have some say, in who hurts you. I like my choices. I hope she likes hers”.

We do have choices in our lives, no matter what the stars have fated, no matter how much time we have left.

Through the movie, you will cry a few times, as it shows us that we have in our power, how we respond to difficult moments. Sometimes, bad things happen to good people. Gus and Hazel are examples of courage. We intuitively have an admiration for them, even a little of envy.

In spite of their diagnosis, in their short time together, they had love. They did not allow that their fate will rule them. Sometimes we are put on this earth for some grand special purpose. But sometimes, our purpose is just in the little things of life.

We do have choices in our lives, no matter what the stars have fated.

A different story is told about this young lawyer working downtown. Once he went to the office of his senior partner and said: “I think you are doing a lousy job!”, Full of chutzpah. It is easy to judge others when you are not standing in their place. The young lawyer told his senior partner:

“There is so much to do! You go home too early… I’m doing all the work!” The senior partner responded: “You want to be the type of lawyer that books are written about, you want to be famous… I just want to be remembered by my children with love, and that’s why I go home early, so I can see them.”

Are we entrapped by our fates? Have we chosen to create routines that, over time, feel like a jail for our souls?

Fate is chance, destiny is choice.

Many times “we walk in shoes too small”.

You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, but you have some say, in who hurts you.

Can we be proud of all our choices?

And if not, we all have a precious opportunity on this HH season to avert a bad decree.

May each one of us find the way out of the dark forests we sometimes inhabit.

May each one of us be able to transcend being a victim of fate, allowing us to choose a meaningful destiny.

Ken Ihieh ratzon,

May this be God’s will.