Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Life as Lottery

Have you ever had the experience of just having bought something new, and then passing another store selling the same thing and going in to ask the shopkeeper his/her price? for something you already bought! Why? Why do we do that? We have no intentions of returning the item we just purchased. We are not about to buy another.
Yet we go in to compare the price we paid with what the same item is selling for somewhere else. And why? What compels us to make the comparison?

This week in the parsha of Pinchas we are told of the 'chalukat haaretz', the dividing of the land of Israel, soon to be inherited by the People, into portions, portions for the Tribes and smaller portions for each family within the tribe.
The Torah tells us that the division and allotment of portions was not done by a selection process in which each tribe and family participated and made their preference known. Nor was the allotment done by Israel's leadership through logical consideration of each tribe and family, their needs and numbers. No the allotment and assignation of portions in the land was done by a lottery. "Al pee ha'goral taichaleik et ha'aretz, bain rav lim'at". After the Torah tells us that the allocation will be in accord with the numbers within each family and tribe it goes on, not once but twice, to insist that the lottery will be the means of assignation.

Question is why? Why is the Torah so insistent that the land cannot be aportionned except through lottery. One other time the Torah requires a lottery and that for the assignation of the two goats of Yom Kippur, one to be a sacrifice and the other the scapegoat, to be sent to the wilderness, their to be thrown down into the gulley carrying with it the sins of the Nation of Israel. Those goats needed to be identical in appearance, in stature, in value. Each could equally lay claim to be the sacrifice whose blood was brought into the Holy of Holies. Yet only one got such an honor. The other was relegated to be shunned, ignominiously killed, with the sins of the People. It was only by dint of lottery that the assignation was made.
Is there a correlation between the two circumstances in the Torah where lottery becomes the decision making process. Can we make a comparison between the lottery of the aportionnment of the land and the lottery of the assignation of the goats of Yom Kippur?

Rebbe Nachman of Breslav understood the 'gorol', the lottery of Moshe in the division of the land in a way quite compelling. He explained that the land simply could not be divided by preference or a human decisor on the basis of logic, no matter how well reasoned. The land, he argued, was not given to the tribes and families at the end of the wilderness journey. The land was already theirs. It belonged to them intrinsically and from the time they left Egypt. Each tribe and each family within that tribe had a piece of land that was as much theirs as was their name and story. The land and the family it belonged to were one, inseparable, indivisable. It is for this reason the land could never be sold in perpetutity and returned to its original owner at the Jubilee year. It was one with its owner, part of his self. That being true, the land could not be divided on the basis of preference or human logic. To do that one would have to assume the land had no owner and now we were deciding who gets what. The land however already belonged to its owners. It was only that we did not know who indeed was the rightful partner to this piece of the land of Israel. What was needed was not a decision but a revelation. What was needed was the awareness of who was the owner of each section of property. Revelation can only be gleaned by means of lottery. The lottery did not decide.The lottery was Divinely inspired. The lottery revealed who belonged to what?

If I understand Rebbe Nachman right, then the lottery of the goats of Yom Kippur is very different from the lottery of the 'chlaukat ha'aretz'. Though both use the same process for decision making they do so for polar opposite reasons. The lottery to decide the fate of the goats of Yom Kippur is used because there simply was no other way to decide. They were identical goats. One had no more merit to be chosen for his role than his peer. Reason could not help us. Sometimes, when we have no other means by which to make a decision, when reasoning will not help us, we use a lottery, or in our times we may flip a coin. Not so the lottery of the assignation of the portions for the land of Israel. There the lottery was necessary because we needed something beyond reason. Reason could help us but it would not do. Through reason we can discern what we should do, what is logical. Reason cannot reveal what the reality is. Only lottery, Divinely inspired, can show us what is existentially true.
Only a holy lottery can show us the real.

So now that we have the two models of 'gorol' I want to ask you, which one feels most true to the story of your life? When you think of all the things that have happened to you, the important decisions you have made, like who you married and your choice for career and business decisions, do you feel that it really could have been otherwise? Is the way your life turned out essentially similar to the lottery of the Yom Kippur goats, it could have gone either way? Or do you see your life as predestined? I mean the important things in your life story, like who you were going to marry, whether you would be rich or poor, healthy or sickly, the kind of work you would do and whether you would have success, were they random or like the lottery of the land already written in Heaven only to be revealed in the flesh through the years of your life?

From the wisdom of our tradition it seems clear. The story of our life is more similar to the lottery of the Land than the lottery of the Yom Kippur goats. Our Sages already told us long ago, "All is decided in Heaven except for fear of Heaven". They taught us that before a person is born all the details of his/her life are decided, whether s/he will be rich or poor, weak or strong, sickly or healthy etc. Our life is a unpacking of what was already decided. Yes, we have freedom of choice and whether we will be good or bad remains in our hands. But the rest belongs to fate and destiny.

I share this understanding because it seems to me the core of having a happy life is not about having been given a 'happy' portion in heaven or even about good decision making here on earth. Rather happiness comes when we accept that the story we are living is the story we are meant for and that it could not be otherwise. We find happiness when we believe our life is a revelation, and like the lottery of the Land something that had to be and is as much a part of us as is our name and our existential reality. What happens to us in our life is no more an accident than who we are as persons. To say "me" is to say my story as much as it is to say my form.

I suspect that this idea is very much behind the teaching in Ethics of the Fathers, "Who is rich? He who is happy with his portion". When we feel our life is our portion even as the land was the portion for each tribe and family, something that was theirs inherently and not a matter of choice, no matter how well argued, then we no longer compare our story to others, we no longer see our lives in relative terms. Our life then can not be otherwise. Comparisons make no sense. We are living the one and only destiny that belongs to us.

And so we return to where we began, our visit to shops selling items just like the one we just bought to see if we could have gotten it cheaper or on the positive side ,to see if we got a bargain. We asked what's the point in this? What motivates us?
The answer is that we see our decision making as the lottery of the Yom Kippur goats.
We are not sure we made the right choice. It felt arbitrary or perhaps we suspect we did not reason as well as we should have when we decided to buy. Sadly, too often we do the same thing with the man or woman we decide to marry. After the fact we start making comparisons. It's not whether we are happy. It's whether we got maximum value in our spouse. Whether we could have done better. Comparative shopping may save some money, but as a way of life it kills the joy. We never know the peace that comes with accepting our story as the destiny meant for us. We never really inherit the land that is ours and know the feeling of belonging and ownership.

No matter where we are in our life, no matter where we have been, no matter our story it is part and parcel of who we are. It could not have been otherwise. That is not to say we can not do better. We must always strive to be better persons within our story and more faithful to Hashem and our peers. We remain challenged to be good and grow. But what happens to us, and even what we decide, outside of the arena of morals and right and wrong, is our destiny and meant for us.

Our life is our lottery. Its the portion in the land of the living meant for us even as the lottery of the land of Israel was for meant for our ancestors.
To be happy is to enjoy what is ours!

Shabbat Shalom

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