2012: Do Jews Believe in Predestination?

29 Dec

Many do. Ever hear the words “it was baschert“?

But maybe the better question should be:

Should Jews believe in predestination, in God’s foreordaining of what is to be in our lives?


You  have probably heard about the “December 21, 2012 – Doomsday” the day when the world is prophesized to come to an end. (My kids have seen the movie – they don’t recommend it.)  The excitement stems from the ancient Mayan calendar  which states that the world will end in December 21, 2012.

The calendar  states that on December 21, 2012, the sun will rise on the dark rift of the center of the milky way which is referred to as a black hole, a galactic event which takes place only once every 25,800 years! –

Something big is predestined to happen! Some claim it will be end of the world.

What do Jews think about this notion of predetermination?

The Sale of Yosef

Immediately after revealing his true identity to his brothers (Parashat Vayigash – last week) Yosef tells them the following:

I am Yosef your brother! You sold me to Egypt. Now don’t worry or feel guilty because you sold me. Look! God has sent me ahead of you to save lives!  There has been a famine in the area for two years, and for another five years there will be no plowing or harvest.  God has sent me ahead of you to insure that you survive in the land and to keep you alive through extraordinary means.  Now it is not you who sent me here, but God.  He has made me Pharaoh’s vizier, director of his entire government, and in charge of all of Egypt. (Genesis 44:4-8)

No less than three times, Yosef assures his brothers that essentially they had nothing to do with the current situation.  It was “meant to be” – baschert – predestined – and at the very most, the brothers were but pawns in the realization of God’s plans. “Do not feel guilty,” he encourages them – it was not them, but the benevolent hand of the Almighty working in mysterious ways.

I personally have a problem with these words, with this approach.

Should the brothers really bear no guilt for their actions, for their deceptions and lies?

In this week’s Torah reading (Parashat Vayechi), after the death and burial of father Yakov, the brothers send word to Yosef, in their father’s name, saying that prior to his death he asked that they be forgiven for the sin they committed, for the evil they had done to Yosef years ago.

It seems that Yosef’s little speech from “last week” was not convincing, and either they still felt guilty, or they  feared revenge now that Yakov their father is out of the picture. Once again Yosef assures them that all is well – that they need not fear vengeance. However, this time Yosef’s words of assurance are a bit different.   He does not say that they are free of guilt. Paying close attention to his words at that time, here is what he says:

Don’t be afraid. Shall I take the place of God? You might have meant to do me harm, but God made it come out good.  He made it come out as it actually did, where the life of a great nation has been preserved. (Genesis 50:19-20)

In other words, the way I understand Yosef at this point is that he is acknowledging their guilt, their sin, but stating that it is not his place to stand in judgement.  In addition, although they did harm him, although they did take action that was not in any way pardonable, nonetheless God never abandoned  Yosef. He blessed him so that he could provide for the salvation of the great nation of Egypt(based on the interpretation 0f Seforno).

This is not predestination.  Rather, I suggest that this is the meaning of blessing.

When God blesses a person or a nation,that does not mean that God micromanages,  determining what is to happen to them; rather, God maintains a closeness with that person or nation, a closeness or presence that opens up opportunities for them; however, what happens is not predestined – not programmed ahead of time by God.

In a book I have recently completed entitled Where’s My Miracle (that will soon be published by Gefen), I include a powerful teaching of Rabbi Hayim David HaLevy, former chief rabbi of Tel Aviv:

This way of thinking is far removed from the masses who see in every occurrence without exception the hand of God. This approach has been handed down to us by Arab fatalism, a way of thinking that interprets everything that happens to a person and to humanity as decreed from the beginning, and that there is no escaping or preventing it from happening. Other religions have adopted that way of thinking, and have tied it to the will of God, Who decrees all.

This is not the way of thought of our holy Torah…. When we know for certain the specific cause of a human tragedy, there is no need to search for divine decrees or punishments….[1]

I am a great believer that the State of Israel is a modern-day miracle.

However, it did not fall into our laps – God blessed us at that hour, and we took advantage of the opportunities, of the doors that opened up before us.

Perhaps at the heat of the moment, when he revealed himself to his brothers, Yosef needed to assure his brothers that all was meant to be, that they should not feel guilty, so as not to allow them to dwell too much on the issue and to move forward, bringing their father and families to Egypt in order to save them from the famine.  He wanted to assure them that they would not be thrown into prison, they would not suffer punishment – that all of that was behind them – a little exaggeration for the greater good.

However, years later, when they again bring up the issue, Yosef tells them what he really thinks.  They did sin, they are guilty, but he is not their judge.

He remains thankful for the blessings in his life, for the ever-presence of God Who has given him the strength and the wisdom to save the lives of so many, Who has endowed him with the insight to turn lemons into lemonade.

[1] Hayim David HaLevy, Aseh Lecha Rav (Tel Aviv: Society for the Publication of the Writings of HaRav Hayim David HaLevy, 1986), 7:287–88, question 59.


4 Responses to “2012: Do Jews Believe in Predestination?”

  1. mindy Wednesday, December 30, 2009 at 6:19 pm #

    That was the first explanation I truly can accept-having previously heard teachings ranging from “every leaf blows according to Hashem’s will”, to us not being able to know the ways of Hashem. (which is true- but difficult in trying to have a relationship- and acknowledge yes there is indeed reward, culpability,responsibility,etc.Thanks!

  2. Andy Curry Wednesday, December 30, 2009 at 11:56 pm #

    Rabbi Schwartz yikar,

    Y’shar koch’cha.

    In that “nes” does not mean “miracle” but rather “sign” or “standard”, is there a Hebrew word which means literally “miracle”?

    Bayamim hahem bazman hazeh, each of the nisim we celebrate can be considered a SIGN of blessing. It wouldn’t have happened without Divine blessing AND the receiving of the blessing by us humans.

    I’m looking forward to reading your book!

    Kol tuv,

  3. ravmorey Thursday, December 31, 2009 at 12:49 am #


    I believe that “nes” means both – a “sign” or “banner” – and also a miracle – the word is used for “miracle” because such occurrences – be they overt or covert – are signs of the relationship that we have with God – but there is also the word niflaot – wonders – if you like that.

  4. Carol Ducak Friday, January 1, 2010 at 7:48 pm #

    As an aside I first read predestination as procrastination.
    I think “free will” and God’s directing minutiae do not make sense. I believe as human beings we should be willing to accept responsibility for our actions. I occasionally have images of God’s tears of frustration and disappointment when we (humanity) make so many errors.
    Our ability to give God credit when something ‘good’ comes out of something ‘bad’ is a wonderful human quality. Most of the time we don’t blame God when something ‘bad’ comes out of somethings that appears ‘good’.

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