Lazer Gurkow

Life Is Not a Game of Chance

Is life a game of chance? Everyone I know would say no. We don’t like to leave anything to chance. We make deliberate choices about the schools we attend, the friends we embrace, the careers we pursue, and the hobbies we adopt. Most of us have short and long-term goals. There is nothing chancy about that. Sure, many people gamble and put everything on the line, but that is not the norm. Life is not a game of chance.

Yet, on the surface, the Torah appears to play a game of chance in one of the most important decisions our people ever made. As our ancestors neared the land of Israel, G-d told them how to divide the land among the people. These were critical decisions because each parcel had to fit those who resided in it. If you were uncomfortable in the land, you wouldn’t flourish.

If you were a mountaineer by nature, you would only be comfortable in a mountainous region. If you were a farmer, you would want to live in the flatlands. If you were a fisherman, you would want to live near the water. If you were a nomad, you would flourish in the desert. Forcing a nomad to live in a city is like stripping him of his freedom. Forcing a mountaineer to live in the flatlands can sap his soul.

These are choices that should have been made with deliberate and careful consideration. Yet, G-d informed Moses that Israel would be divided by lottery. Spin the wheel and leave it to chance. This is a critical aspect of life with long-term consequences on a crucial matter. The Jewish people belong in Israel. They flourish in Israel. Why would we chance forcing them to live in ways that fetter and chain them?

Divine Orchestration
The answer to this question begins at the very baseline of our life perspective. If we believe that everything was created by G-d and all is orchestrated by G-d, we conclude that lotteries are not games of chance. Nothing is left to chance in a deliberate world. When it seems to be left to chance, it is G-d guiding the wheel from behind the scenes.

When we make deliberate choices, it is easy to forget that G-d orchestrates the results. It looks like we are responsible for our choices. (Even in those cases, G-d is reliable, but that is beyond the scope of this essay.) But a believer perceives lotteries as choices made by G-d, not as games of chance.[1]

When Joshua spun the wheel, the name and location produced by the spin were determined by G-d. G-d knows us better than we know ourselves. We can know our external dispositions and materialistic inclinations. We can know if we prefer to climb or fish, do physical or mental labor, etc. G-d knows our souls and in which climate and topography we will flourish spiritually. G-d matched us up, and there was nothing chancy about that.

My Mitzvah
The stories of the Torah are not recorded for their historical value. Their primary purpose is to teach us lessons. The lesson we learn from how the land was divided is that the Torah is also divided among the Jewish people. Just as Israel belongs to all Jews, yet each Jew has a private plot, so are all Jews obligated to fulfill every Mitzvah, but we each have a Mitzvah that is uniquely ours, so to speak. We observe them all, but one Mitzvah occupies a special place in our hearts.

We don’t select our Mitzvah; G-d chooses it for us. Not by lottery, as it were, but He finds a way to inform us. For reasons we can’t explain, we each have a specific Mitzvah that speaks to our hearts; that resonates with us. It is not a deliberate choice. We can’t trace the origins or reasons for this connection, but it is there, and it is real. Undeniably so.

For some, it might be the Seder; for others, it might be Chanukah. For some, it might be the Shofar; for others, it might be the Sukkah. But we each have something that speaks to us. Our affinity for these Mitzvot can be rationalized by their association with pleasant holiday memories. We may even have positive childhood associations with them. However, some of us love Passover cleaning. Some love giving to Tzedakah. Some love the thrill of searching for and finding a kosher restaurant in a foreign city. These are not pleasant Mitzvot. They require diligence, commitment, and effort. Yet we love them.

We can’t explain why we love them any more than we can’t explain why the wheel of fortune brought a certain Jew to a particular plot of land in Israel. But our inability to explain it doesn’t make our love for it any less real. This is G-d’s way of telling us that this Mitzvah has a special connection to our soul.

When We Really Don’t Like It
There is another telltale sign that a specific Mitzvah has a powerful connection to our soul. That is when we really, really don’t enjoy it, don’t look forward to it, and try our best to avoid it. Ironically, this does not mean that this Mitzvah is not our thing. It means that it really is our thing.

You see, there is no such thing as a Mitzvah that is not our thing. Each Mitzvah belongs to each Jew, and each Jew belongs to each Mitzvah. Why, then, would we feel resistance to a particular Mitzvah?

The answer is that this Mitzvah is so deeply connected with us that if we were to fulfill it and enjoy it, it might open a door within our souls. If we walked through that door, we would be committed to and passionate about the Torah for the rest of our lives. It is also possible that this one Mitzvah is the primary purpose for which our souls descended to this world. If we fulfill this Mitzvah, we will have accomplished our mission.

G-d gave us two souls: a G-dly soul and an animal soul. The G-dly soul is excited about this Mitzvah, but the animal soul is not. The animal soul invests tremendous efforts to engender a deep resistance to this Mitzvah. The stakes are too high for the animal soul, and it doesn’t want us to fulfill this Mitzvah.

We are also connected to the Mitzvot that we enjoy, but not as profoundly as to the ones we don’t. Therefore, the animal soul doesn’t work as hard to resist those Mitzvot. We feel the attraction of the G-dly soul, and we don’t feel the resistance of the animal soul. This is why we enjoy those Mitzvot. However, the Mitzvah we resist has a powerful connection to us. That is why our animal soul resists it so.

We often can’t explain our resistance rationally. This is because our connection to the Mitzvah is not rational. It transcends human understanding and is orchestrated by G-d above. What we feel is resistance. But the resistance ought to be a telltale sign that this is a Mitzvah worth fighting for. Our resistance should never be taken as a sign that this Mitzvah is not for us.

On the contrary, the moment we feel resistance to a Mitzvah, we must know that resistance is unnatural to a Jew. It must be coming from the animal soul, and the animal soul must be riled up because this Mitzvah is special for us. If anything, our resistance is a signal to rise and push harder.

If this is the Mitzvah for which our souls descended to this world, or if this is the Mitzvah that will vitalize our attachment to the entire Torah, it deserves a special effort.

[1] It is still not okay to play games of chance, but for a different reason. The fact that everyone playing the game hopes to walk away with everyone else’s money inculcates a sense of entitlement to another’s property. This is a dishonest way to make a living, but it is not a game of chance.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at