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September 20, 2014 / 25 Elul, 5774
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‘I Was Just Doing Hashem’s Will’

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It was one of those cold, rain-soaked evenings – the kind that make you look forward to a hot drink, a good book and a soft couch to curl up on. With those happy thoughts in mind, I proceeded to cross to the other side of the street.

Luckily I wasn’t too preoccupied with my images of impending comfort to not look around. Sure enough, as I was half way across, I quickly realized that I was going to be competing for the space in front of me with a woman in a mini-van who was making a left turn.

Now as a pedestrian I have the right of way – that is undisputable. But as the saying goes, “might makes right” and I wisely ascertained that in this particular situation, I would not come out on “top.” My 130 lbs. body (writer’s license here) would be no match for thousands of pounds of steel, and if anything I would end up “under.”

And so I yielded my right of way to her – an act of “chesed” that I’m sure she wasn’t even aware of. How could she be? Her neck was tilted to the left, allowing her to sandwich her cell phone between her chin and her shoulder, causing her face to be positioned sideways and her eyes pointed downward.

Situations like this tend to make me philosophical at times, so I asked myself. “What if Hashem decided as He looked at my name in the Book of Life/Death during the Yomim Noraim that the honor of my presence was requested in Shamayim and that I would be getting to “The Good Place” (or the alternative) sooner than later? The sooner being as I crossed the street that night?

Should this lady – animatedly yakking on her phone as she made a left turn on a dark, rain-slicked road with less than optimum visibility – feel guilty and tormented for running me over and causing my soul to depart?

Or should she instead be b’simcha and with pride insist on a kiddush in shul for being deemed worthy enough to be chosen by Hashem to fulfill His will? After all, the Almighty decrees all that happens in this universe – even something as common as the falling of a leaf off a tree is under His purview – and she would simply have been His instrument, with not one whit of responsibility for my untimely demise.

Would it be a self-defeating gesture to blame herself and experience much guilt and anguish and loss of sleep over the fact that I was now in Next World when, in fact, the Heavenly Judge was the one who wrote the script and appointed her to make it a reality?

Why should she be punished by either her conscience or any other entity – like the judicial system? How responsible would she be for an event that had been Heavenly ordained?

That question of accountability and punishment/reward has come up frequently in Jewish philosophical and religious discourses. One that quickly comes to mind deals with the suffering inflicted on the Egyptians prior to Bnei Yisrael’s emancipation from slavery. Was it not God’s will that the descendants of Yaakov be enslaved for hundreds of years? Why then, were the Egyptians so severely penalized for just doing God’s will?

I believe the answer lies in the Judaic concept of free will. Events may be ordained from Above, but the role one plays in implementing them is totally up to the individual. The Sages state that the Egyptians were punished for doing what they were heavenly mandated to do – enslaving the children of Yaakov – because they did so with such relish and enjoyment. They chose to be brutal and delighted in the pain they caused.

Which brings us back to the yenta on wheels. Obviously God in His infinite wisdom had decreed that this particular day was not my departure day. However had God decided otherwise – the blame would have been on her shoulders – because she had the choice and the free will not to drive in a way that put others at risk.

Yenta chose to flout the law of the land – the obeying of which, by the way, is a halachic requirement. This law forbids using a cell phone while driving unless it is a hands-free set. The woman had the option of acquiring/using the hands free set, but chose not to.

Was it arrogance, “I’m above the law, I’m better than everyone” or overconfidence, “I can safely and competently drive, talk on the phone and even change my kid’s diaper – all at the same time” or laziness that influenced her free will and led her to engage in such risky behavior? It doesn’t really matter – the fact is that she chose her course of action.

God doesn’t need a messenger to do His work. If He had decreed that it was time for my soul to return to its original home, I could have tripped on the wet street and fatally hit my head instead.

So no kiddush here. No pride in “doing God’s will.” Just a vehicular manslaughter, but for the grace of God.

People comfort themselves with the belief that whatever happens – or does not happen – to them or others is bashert. If they cause someone harm, unintentionally of course, then it was meant to be, and they should not destroy themselves with grief and guilt. That is true. However, that does not absolve a person from being cautious, conscientious, and vigilant. Just because something is ordained to happen does not translate into a green light to act in a hefker way.

You can’t have the attitude that, for example, there is no need to wear a seatbelt – because if it is bashert for you to die in a crash, it doesn’t matter if you are buckled in or not. After all, people are killed while wearing a seatbelt, while others come out unscathed, even though they were unbuckled.

The fact is, we are gifted with choice, and it is incumbent on each of us to make the best ones possible. The outcome is not in our hands – you can eat healthily, get regular medical checkups and exercise and still have a heart attack. Non-smokers can be stricken with lung cancer. But we still need to do what we can to be safe – and to ensure other people’s safety and wellbeing.

Driving a car on a dark, rainy night, distracted by a conversation you are having a cell phone, held in place by your neck and a raised shoulder, as you make a left turn – does not exactly make you a candidate for a safe driver award.

Having said that, pedestrians like myself – since I like to walk (an activity that seems to becoming obsolete) – need to be alert and aware of their surroundings as well. Had I been distracted, texting or listening to music, I could have crossed the street unaware of the car being navigated by Mrs. Yenta.

At the end of the day, a person is Hashem’s “tool” in fulfilling His will. But you have to do your part, and do what is right to the best of your ability.

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