The Irish-American writer John O’Hara opens his novel Appointment in Samarra with the following passage from British novelist Somerset Maugham:
DEATH SPEAKS: There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the market-place I was jostled by a women in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from the city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the market-place and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for, I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.
Of course, the philosophical question of whether or not one can escape fate long precedes O’Hara and Maugham. But are they correct? Are we merely fish unknowingly swimming into the waiting net? What is the Jewish view on the matter of fate? If G-d has decreed that something should take place, is it possible to think we can escape His plan?
As is the case with most complex matters of Jewish thought, there is no black-and-white answer. It is clear that there are times when performance of good deeds can annul a Divine decree,, and it is equally clear that other times nothing can change one’s fate. It is regarding the latter that the great Nachmanides writes, “If the decree is true, all effort is futile”?
Not only is effort futile, but, as with the servant in Bagdad, G-d frequently uses our very efforts to escape the decree as the method that brings it to its fruition. Among the many examples in the Torah and Rabbinic literature is the story that has been unfolding in the past few weeks’ Torah portion, which reaches its climax this week. Joseph’s brothers mock his visions of grandeur and sell him off as a slave, in the process bringing Joseph to the very place where he has the opportunity to rule over them. Indeed, as this week’s Torah portion begins, the story is brought full circle with Judah pleading before Joseph and offering himself as a slave.
Aside from being an interesting philosophical question, this idea has practical ramifications in our interactions with others. When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, he shows great strength and takes the route of consolation and forgiveness. In his remarks to his brothers, he tells them not worry about what they did to him, as it was all part of the Divine plan to put him in a position to save lives.
Joseph was not merely speaking in a manner that allowed him to put his bothers at ease. His deep faith in the Divine plan allowed to him to forgive and forget, to realize that no one has the ability to hurt others if they don’t deserve it, and any hurt he may have deserved ultimately lead to greater things.
Shockingly, the Rabbinic literature takes this idea even further. The brothers are actually given credit for being the messengers of the Divine plan, represented as heroes whose actions brought about salvation, as if this were their plan all along. This begs the obvious question: While G-d certainly had the ability to use their bad decision as a force for good, this doesn’t change the fact that they had negative intentions – so is all evil forgiven just because the Omnipotent G-d uses it for the good?
The Rabbis explain that this, too, teaches us a powerful lesson. As the Torah clearly relates, the brothers have come to sincerely regret their previous actions, and Judah’s dedication to Benjamin shows that they have learned their lesson – never again will they forsake a brother. The power of repentance allows their former negative actions to be considered as a force for the good.
The lessons for us are obvious. We can never know what is fate and what we have the ability to change, but we certainly can control our actions and reactions to whatever life throws our way. We must strive to accept whatever comes our way with equanimity, never taking revenge or bearing a grudge, never blaming or complaining. And we should realize that no mistake we have made in the past is unredeemable. Regret for our past mistakes can be used as a force for future positive action, and, when used as such, G-d will assure that no matter when our “appointment in Samarra” arrives, all our actions will lead to good, and that is how we will be eternally remembered in His eyes.
Our fate is in G-d’s hands, but our future is in ours.