If a man is destined to drown, he will drown even in a spoonful of water. — Yiddish Proverb
In the staccato list of commandments that are given in this week’s Torah reading, there is the extremely sensible commandment to build a fence around your roof. However, the end of the verse is strange, counterintuitive and a bit depressing. It ends with the phrase “for the faller will fall from it.”
Classic interpreters explain that the verse really means “lest someone fall,” meaning it should read: “Build a fence around your roof, lest someone fall from it.” However, Rabbeinu Bechaye on Deuteronomy 22:8 takes the opportunity to discuss some deeper theological issues of free will by reading the verse with its plain meaning of “build a fence around your roof for the faller will fall from it.”
He states that the faller was predestined to fall since “the six days of creation,” but we should not be the agent of his death. In fact, not only was the faller’s unfortunate death predestined, but the faller’s soul knew about it beforehand. Rabbeinu Bechaye quotes the Midrash which explains that before a soul is born into a human body, God shows the soul all of its future life. God shows the soul its birth, parents, family, childhood, all of the ups and downs of life, career, income, accomplishments, disappointments, heartbreaks and challenges as well as the eventual circumstances of its mortal death. And the soul, of its own free will chooses that life. Not only is this true for human beings, but every component of creation chose its material, physical existence when it was still in some spiritual dimension.
Rabbeinu Bechaye continues to explain that despite this pre-destination, besides the fact that the faller (or the victim of any other misfortune) was destined to undergo that event, God still holds us liable for our actions. Meaning, just because (in hindsight) we knew that someone was going to die, does not in any way give us permission to be part of a wrong or unethical act. Yes, he was going to die, but the agent of his death is nonetheless liable.
Apparently, part of the deal in choosing our destiny when we are in the spiritual dimension is that we will have no recollection, no idea whatsoever as to what it is we agreed to. In a sense, our spiritual amnesia is what gives us free will. We are responsible for every decision we make. We are responsible for every act we do. We will pay the price for our mistakes and reap the benefits of what we do correctly. We have to struggle with indecision, with questioning what’s right and what to do. It is a constant ongoing challenge to know what to do, to force ourselves on a daily basis to do the right thing, to be the best version of ourselves.
However, at some fundamental level, not only does God know what we’re going to do and how things will play out, but our own soul knows as well and was a partner in charting that course before we came into this world.
It can take a lifetime to discover one’s destiny and even then, as mortals we may only appreciate it in retrospect, though it was somehow all foretold.
May we always choose correctly and pray that our souls knew what they were doing.
To the memory of the Rebbe of the Shomer Emunim, whose yarhzheit was this past week.