Steven Weinberg
PhD Student at Rutgers University

Haftarah Mattot: Don’t ‘Get Lucky’ — Get Blessed

For many years now I have been fascinated by the English phrase “getting lucky.” We use this phrase to describe the situation when a man has sex with a woman, in which the woman is either not the man’s wife or girlfriend or, if she is, she, for whatever reason, rarely agrees to have sex with him. We use this phrase in the sense of: he got lucky last night, or he might get lucky tonight, or I hope I get lucky. Admittedly, this phrase was perhaps more popular among baby boomers than millennials and, so far as I know, has largely disappeared among Generation Y and Z. This may be a good or bad development, depending on whom you ask. Regardless, getting lucky is an interesting turn of words and even appears in Webster’s dictionary under the lusty aforementioned definition. Why, why do we say it for this specific circumstance?

Encoded into this phrase is the idea that an element of luck is required to sleep with a woman who isn’t your girlfriend or wife (or even, sometimes, when she is). I don’t think there is anything inaccurate about this premise. After all, for sex to occur, a long series of “yeses” needs to be expressed, usually by the woman; any “no,” for any reason, disrupts the entire endeavor. This means: yes to speaking, yes to one or more dates, yes to kissing, yes to not going home early, yes to trust, yes to not catching a cold, yes to not forgetting a condom, yes to getting over your ex-boyfriend, yes to not having bad breath, yes to not smelling bad in general, yes to not getting turned off, etcetera. Any misstep, any accident, any bad luck can and will sabotage the mating ritual, very often to the point of irrecoverability. Put another way, in order to avoid stepping on a landmine in a field laced with them, one needs luck—even just a little bit of luck. This dynamic explains why, among other reasons, men unconsciously began to characterize a man’s ability to bed a woman as “getting lucky” par excellence.

In fact, luck is part of our daily vocabulary in an array of other fields. We speak of catching a lucky break, lucky ducks, luck of the draw, lady luck, and most importantly, good luck. When we meditate on these expressions, we reach the following qualities of luck. With luck, whatever happens is entirely out of one’s control, has the power to drastically impact the situation, and can quickly change course from good luck to bad luck. Many of these themes and qualities are well captured in the Frank Sinatra song “Luck be a Lady.” We may contrast lucky with blessed. We recognize these as two vastly different words, and yet, on the surface, they have an awful lot in common.

As with luck, we theoretically have no control over whether or not we are blessed. And as with luck, whether or not we are blessed can have radical consequences on our station in life. Yet, unlike luck, blessedness is not precarious. There is no good or bad blessedness (actually, the reverse of blessedness would not be bad luck but rather to be cursed). When one is blessed, one need not worry about this blessing spontaneously morphing into a curse. Yet with luck, there is an implicit understanding that it is ephemeral and fragile. In short, luck is whimsical and unreliable; blessings are rock-solid guarantors.

The language of blessing, on contrast to the language of luck, bears out this distinction. If a man successfully sleeps with a woman at a party, no one would ever say that “he got blessed” (and I really hope I did not just create some hip new slang for the young kids to say). Here, the word “blessed” would simply sound entirely unfitting. We use blessed, rather, to describe the features of one’s character or standing when these features are so embedded, so established, so cemented within the person that it would be almost unthinkable for these qualities—these blessings—to ever desert their possessor. We might speak of athletes who have been blessed with long arms or excellent vision or a sixth sense of sorts. Blessings are used to describe homes and families and nations—that is, to describe long-term, well-established fixtures. In fact, compared to luck, in which we have a vast array of idioms and phrases, there are few for the word bless. There is mixed blessing and blessing in disguise and even God bless you, but this is only three compared to perhaps thirty or more for luck. I think the reason for this difference is due to the fact that we innately take blessings seriously. We do not reduce them to catchy phrases and everyday colloquialisms. Blessings are too serious, too powerful, too robust to be degraded in this way.

The word “blessing” is, of course, most often used within the sphere of religion. It is a fundamental, if not the fundamental, component of Judaism. God famously blessed Jacob. On his way out from Be’er Sheva and toward Haran, Jacob falls asleep and dreams of a ladder in which the angels of God are ascending and descending thereupon. Suddenly, God stands beside Jacob and says to him:

I am the Lord, the God of Abraham, your father, and the God of Isaac. The land you are lying upon, I give it to you and to your seed. And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall spread it abroad to the west, to the east, to the north, and to the south. And in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And behold, I am with you, and will protect you wherever you may go, for I will never leave you (Gen. 27:13-15).

This is, indeed, a blessing. Notice the level of protection and security and assurance in these words. While we might say that Jacob was “lucky” to have received this blessing, the very word lucky is so antithetical and offensive to the premises of blessings that it feels false to describe Jacob in this way.

In fact, Martin Luther’s new version of Christianity, or, in his view, the original version of Christianity, was based upon a similar principle of blessedness. Luther claimed that when one was born, it had already been decided—pre-decided—whether or not one was, so to speak, “liked” by God. Luther developed this theology in 1525 in his book De Servo Arbitrio, which roughly translates to On Unfree Will. In this book, Luther claimed that “free will is a downright lie” and that “each is the gift of God, and not the work of our own endeavors.” What distinguishes Luther’s idea from the Torah’s is, I think, that Luther’s is hyper-focused on the Christian concept of salvation and damnation. God knows in advance whether or not a person will be “saved” and there is nothing that person might do to change this fate. This idea became known in Christianity as predestination. By contrast, blessedness in Judaism is not predestination, though there are some similarities. In Judaism, the matter does not hinge on the binary of saved or not saved. Rather, as the word “blessed” itself suggests, Jacob’s blessing did not guarantee him salvation in the afterlife, but rather security, abundance, and love in this world.

In the haftarah of Matot, we read from the very beginning of the Book of Jeremiah. In the fifth verse, God tells Jeremiah that: “Before I formed you in the belly I knew you, and before you came forth from the womb I had made you holy and appointed you to be a prophet.”

In the cases of Jeremiah and of Luther’s saved Christians and obviously of Yaakov Avinu, we cannot really describe it as “luck.” The promise is too bedrock, the future is too solidified, the saga is too preordained. There cannot be good luck where there is not also the possibility of bad luck. And in each of these cases, two Jewish, one Christian, there seems to be little dice-rolling going on.

We might ask why it is that we, as a society, think today much more in terms of luck than in terms of blessing. Indeed, the predominance of luck may be another reason why there are so many more idioms and phrases which employ this word. I think that the reason why luck has usurped blessing as our go-to Weltanschauung is due to the rise of high-flying capitalism. In capitalist economies, fortunes change quickly, stocks rise and fall, businesses open and close, markets bubble up and collapse, workers are hired and fired, and on and on. Start-ups don’t get blessed; they get lucky. By contrast, the slow pace of the agrarian world of Jacob, of Jeremiah, and even of Martin Luther, permitted people to think much more in terms of blessing—that is, of long term, steady security and prosperousness. Ironically, the German sociologist Max Weber theorized that it was out of Luther’s theology of sola gratia—salvation by grace alone—that capitalism developed. The lower and middle classes of Germany, Protestants, worked hard in their professions in order to become successful. This success was not, as it is today, for its own sake, but to possess outward proof that God had pre-selected them for salvation. This hard work to prove oneself saved was termed by Weber as the Protestant work ethic. Eager to be, so to speak, blessed, German Protestants wished to become lucky and thereby replaced a blessing-based society with a luck one.

In Judaism, we begin many prayers with the word blessed—Baruch. We say Baruch ata Adonai which gets translates into English as blessed are you, our Lord. It is an odd phrasing. Why would God Himself be blessed? Yet, if we think deeply about what it really means to be blessed, then Baruch ata Adonai is apt indeed. Who, after all, is more guaranteed, bounteous, and safe in His station than God Himself (assuming we don’t ask Nietzsche). God is, by definition, here to stay—He is, in this sense, the epitome of a blessed being. Inversely, moreover, the Hebrew word for luckMazal, as in Mazal Tov—does not once appear in the Torah. Whereas today we chronically use the word “luck” and much less frequently say “bless,” in the Torah luck is nowhere to be found, whereas bless is all over it.

One reason for the absence of “luck” in the Torah is the overarching premise that God’s Word guides the entire story and that, hence, blind chance is sidelined in favor of fated-ness and destiny. This principle surely is at work in the explanation, but still, the Torah is a big book with dozens if not hundreds of stories and characters and subplots—and no mention of luck or wishes of “good luck”? Ironically, the modern Hebrew word for luck, Mazal, was very occasionally used centuries later during the writing of the Mishnah and the Talmud. However, at this time it did not mean luck but rather stood for a positive astrological sign. It was not until the nineteenth century in which the ubiquitous phrase Mazal Tov! began to be expressed in common discourse to congratulate others. Ironically, then, this most “Jewish” of words—Mazal—was first used to refer to the Pagan practice of discerning one’s fate by analyzing the stars. Put another way, luck is an inherently pagan concept whereas blessed is Monotheistic.

We would all do much better to try to think of ourselves less as lucky and more as blessed. We might return, for example, to the analogy of “getting laid”—getting lucky. What does it say about a man who attributes his ability to have sex with a woman to luck? It is an admission of powerlessness; it suggests that if he succeeded, he did not deserve to succeed. When we adopt a luck-based view of the world, we disempower ourselves; we prostrate ourselves before the topsy-turvy, merciless stock ticker of life, in which we let the “stars” decide how they will have their way with us. I believe that, because we have all been conditioned by an unprecedentedly extreme capitalistic mindset, we feel innately unprotected, vulnerable, afraid. We have been conditioned to think that, at any moment, all the riches we have striven for can be abruptly robbed from us, friends can morph into judges, social exile can come swift. As a result, we wander through life as beggars before the stars, hopelessly strategizing on how we might please them while in turn giving up our own core values and our faith in ourselves. We become nice and polite, not out of goodness but out of raw fear—fear that we might displease fickle lady luck and find ourselves damned.

We say that Jacob was blessed because, well, God blessed him. But part of the blessing might have been, in fact, the blessing itself. Jacob became blessed in hearing the words that he was blessed. He felt loved, protected, and supported by God so he thereby became loved, protected, and supported. This blessing enabled Jacob to go through life with the confidence and self-assurance that he needed only to stay true to himself and his core values for life to continually give herself to him. Jacob did not need to ruminate over what he really wanted or whether his desires would offend others. He did not need to anxiously tiptoe around decisions in a pathetic attempt to keep “luck on his side.” Instead, God’s blessing allowed Jacob to adopt the attitude of: If it’s right for me, it’s right in and of itself; If it’s what I want, I deserve to have it; Even if I fail, I still succeed; I am entitled to “good luck.”

We now might better understand why the Book of Jeremiah begins with God’s assurance to him that he had been chosen before he was even born. This message gave Jeremiah the shield he needed to go before the vicious crowds of popular opinion and cry out his unpopular, controversial message.

We do not need God to bless us to be blessed. To wait for God to bless us is to once more adopt a luck-based view of our lives. I really hope He blesses me! I really hope they like me! Instead, we need to feel ourselves to be loved, protected, and promised. This feeling is itself the blessing. This blessing requires that we view ourselves not as tumbling dice but rather as mountains. It is not always easy to be a mountain. Mountains get rained on, get snowed on, get hiked on with heavy boots and pointy trekking poles. But unlike numbers on the face of the die, the mountain is always, well, the mountain. If it rains or snows, the mountain does not try to stop being a mountain—it accepts the discomfort of the temporary bad weather but remains who it is and quite literally stands up for what it wants—to be a mountain. Feeling blessed—being blessed—does not mean that bad things will not happen to us—that we will not have “bad luck.” Rather, feeling blessed will allow us to proceed unapologetically through life, unafraid of conflict, unafraid of criticism, unafraid to ask for what we want, unafraid to live by our convictions. And this mindset is itself the blessing.

About the Author
Steven Weinberg is a PhD student at Rutgers University in the German Department. His dissertation is on Franz Kafka and the Kabbalah. He grew up in Philadelphia, but moved to Israel in his late twenties, where he studied literature at Ben-Gurion University. Currently, Steven lives in Berlin, but travels to Israel and America as often as he can. His blog is based off his podcast, The Schrift, a weekly lecture series on Torah, German literature, and meditation. The Schrift is available on Apple and Spotify platforms.
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