I remember one day in high school asking what the difference was between astronomy and astrology. My physics teacher, somewhat mockingly, defined one as the study of the stars and the other as superstition. And though that’s how I recall most people regarding horoscopes, there was always some level of acceptance in the practice in those around me. My mother was very relieved I wasn’t born a Scorpio. Several people I met in college seemed to regard birth signs as significant for dating compatibility. And whether we know intellectually that our star sign prediction is bupkis, we sometimes can’t help our curiosity.
But as I started to become more religious, I was surprised to find that not only did Judaism regard star reading with some credibility, it is directly referenced in the Torah! I would have thought that even if there was something to it, it would be considered as idol worship and completely forbidden. In some ways it is. But that’s only if you believe the stars as a power in and of themselves. According to Judaism, if done properly, it can be a window to the secrets of your destiny. Destiny? Judaism has destiny? Well, maybe I should use another word… Mazel.
The popular celebratory declaration is usually translated as good luck. But if God runs the world, luck would be at odds with Divine providence, so clearly that’s a poor translation. Destiny would be the easiest translation for mazel available given the limitations of English, but there’s much more to it.
The Talmud discusses an individual’s predetermination, sometimes referred to as coming from Heaven while in other places referring to the source being the “Constellations.” But Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto in his book Derech Hashem describes Mazel a little more clearly. I’ll do my best to paraphrase, directly quoting when necessary.
Essentially everything in the physical world, living, nonliving, and even events, are rooted in higher spiritual planes (aka the heavens). “Everything’s essence is brought to earth, reflected from its spiritual roots on high [and brought] down to the physical [world].” So basically everything that happens to you comes from a flow from Heaven. He goes on to say that, “Every human being is also subjugated to this system, and whatever happens to him is a result of this astrological influence.” The Talmud supports this listing that opportunities like, lifespan, health, and children are all predetermined. Kind of a bummer right? I thought Judaism was a religion that insisted free choice was an essential component. What’s the point of that free choice if I can’t affect my standing?
Abraham Changes His Mazel
In this weeks Torah portion, there is a scene where God visits Abraham (at this point known as Abram) to give him the land of Israel.
And Abram said, “O Lord God, what will You give me, since I am going childless, and the steward of my household is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, You have given me no seed, and behold, one of my household will inherit me.” And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “This one will not inherit you, but the one who will spring from your innards-he will inherit you.” And He took him outside, and He said, “Please look heavenward and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So will be your seed.” And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him as righteousness. (Bereishis 15:2-6)
Abram seems to doubt that he will have children and so God takes him outside his tent to deliver the famous, your children will be as plentiful as the stars, speech. But Rashi brings up a Midrash on the phrase “He took him outside.” The comment reads as follows;
According to its simple meaning: He took him out of his tent, outdoors, to see the stars. But according to its midrashic interpretation, He said to him,“Go out of your astrology,” for you have seen in the signs of the zodiac that you are not destined to have a son. Indeed, Abram will have no son, but Abraham will have a son.
From this interpretation, not only does the Jewish tradition acknowledge a power in horoscopes, our primary forefather, Abraham was using it! But here God specifically tells him to abandon the practice.
Jumping back to Rabbi Luzzatto’s Derech Hashem, he notes that, “Observation [of the stars] supplies a very small amount of information about the system [of spiritual influence] as a whole… Astrologers attempting to predict the future are very rarely able to do so accurately and what they do see is not clearly seen.” But then he adds probably the most important detail, “Their ability to predict is further reduced by the fact that sometimes Providence [i.e. God Himself] intervenes in earthy matters, and this overrides the stellar system entirely.” So it is quite clear that if God wants to change things, it doesn’t matter your birth month.
At God’s Whims?
Okay, so it is great that we’re not bound by the Astrology app from the iTunes store. But is being at the mercy of God’s decree any better when it comes to the free choice debate? Rabbi Meir Shapiro adds a transformative insight to the moment between Abram and God.
God instructs Abram to look to the heavens and count the stars. Imagine being in Abram’s place, it’s a powerful visual to understand your legacy. But then you’d say something like, “Okay God I get it, I’m going to have a lot of descendants.” According to Rabbi Shapiro, Abram actually started counting the stars. Clearly it was an impossible task. But it is that very character trait that made Abram worthy of being the father to the Jewish people. Just as Abram tried his best to accomplish the impossible, so too shall his children. Rabbi Shapiro continues saying that Jews don’t succeed according to their abilities but according to the degree of which they want it.
Deep down we all know this. We’ve seen the underdog win with odds stacked against them. It is what makes a story memorable. If rules stand in the way of someone who wants it bad enough, they’ll find a way around the rules. Or they just happen to be at the right place at the right time to meet that one person who can give them that one in a million chance!
Does Mazel Even Exist?
Rashi’s comment above notes that God says Abram won’t have children but Abraham will. It is actually an idea in the Talmud that if a person changes their name or moves to another city, it can change their mazel. Even today it isn’t uncommon for critically ill patients to have their Hebrew names changed in hopes of a recovery. But what some may regard as a simple trick is hinting as something bigger. It’s not that you change your name and so the angel of death can’t find you anymore. The idea is more that if you change who you are as a person, your behavior, your outlook, and you do teshuvah, then you are a different person and from that you get a different mazel. That’s why moving to a new city could help. You go from a person with roots and community to being the “new guy,” an outsider, and you’re forced to rebuild.
Lastly, Rashi offers an alternate interpretation of the line, “And He took him outside.”
He took him out of the terrestrial sphere and lifted him above the stars. Looking down from above.
From this interpretation, the Rabbis of the Talmud (Shabbat 156a-b) insist that no Jews have a predetermined mazel at all! That we are above the influence of the stars. But interestingly enough the examples the Talmud uses are a couple of stories, first one Shmeul and then another concerning Rabbi Akiva. In Shmuel’s story a man had the mark of death on him, but because he went out of his way to save a poor man from embarrassment, his life was miraculously spared. In Rabbi Akiva’s story, it was foretold that his daughter would die on her wedding day. But because of an act of charity that decree was annulled.
These stories clearly indicate that Jews do have some sort of predetermination, albeit changeable. So why would the Rabbis specifically say for Jews, “there is no constellation for the Jewish people.”? The answer is in the power of a mitzvah. At the end of both stories the Rabbis explain the salvation specifically noting, “You performed a mitzvah.”
It is clear that we all have inclinations and we also seem to fall into the same traps over and over again. There also seem to be correlations between external factors and a person’s character. Whether it is where they are born, when they are born, what their name is, or what family the come from, these have profound effects (whether that is nature vs nurture, you can decide). However a mitzvah is the key to transcending nature. It is natural for a person to take every resource they can to ensure their survival. It is a mitzvah to share some of that resource with someone else when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from.
Whatever your situation, Judaism says it was specifically designed for you to grow in the maximal way. Judaism also says it is up to you whether you want to be defined by the boundaries of your situation or be defined by how you overcome it. In last week’s parsha, Noah accepted the fate of humanity, believing that saving his fellow man was impossible. In this week’s parsha, we see Abraham take the opposite approach and because of that his name changed, his destiny changed, and most of all, he repeatedly accomplished the impossible. Choose to make your mazel tov.