The Destiny of Free Will

hero image

Early afternoon found me in one of my favorite places in Israel – a cab – returning from my very favorite place in Israel – the Western Wall. As we wove through Jerusalem’s diverse neighborhoods, we passed ancient buildings with centuries of history adjacent to modern commercial buildings, yet, somehow, the scene was not incongruous at all. I sat in (a rare moment of) awed silence, absorbed in the surreal beauty of this timeless city.

Suddenly, I noticed a two-story, concrete, cylindrical building that had obviously been a guard tower during one of Israel’s early wars, probably from ’48 or ’67. It was painted red, which forced a point into my head. “You know,” I commented to my taxi driver, “Jewish soldiers could very well have died in this tower, in an effort to secure the Jewish homeland for the Jewish people. And now, politicians are giving away that very land to the same people who haven’t stopped trying to annihilate us since it became our homeland.”

Thus began our discussion of Israeli politics. As the conversation moved into that murky area between politics and religion, we stumbled upon a question, a contradiction that neither of us could answer. On the one hand, we know that every individual has free will, but on the other hand, we firmly believe that G-d guides the destiny of the Jewish People. If the destiny of the Jewish people is that they should have the entire land of Israel, but a prime minister uses his free will and decides to give it away, what happens? How does the conflict of a ruler with free will and G-d’s control over the Jewish people’s destiny resolve itself?

After being stymied by this philosophical paradox, I changed gears and began asking the cab driver about his life in Israel. Since we were talking about wars, I asked him if he fought in any wars, and he replied in the affirmative; he fought in the Yom Kippur War and in the war with Lebanon in ’82. Using Golda Meir’s famous line, “When looking at Israel’s wars, one who doesn’t believe in miracles is not rational,” I asked him what miracles he had seen.

In answer to my question, he launched into a most incredible story, spending more time facing me in the back seat and gesticulating passionately than looking at the road. (I think it is a miracle that I got home safely. But you can enjoy this story from the comfort of your chair without fearing for your life.)

“In the beginning of the Yom Kippur War,” he related, “the Syrians surprised us and drove us from Mt. Hermon. It is the most strategic spot in Northern Israel, as it overlooks a huge swath of the Galilee, the Golan, Lebanon, and Israel. Things were looking grim for Israel until a crack army of the Golani Brigade made a valiant and costly counter-offensive in which they not only regained the Israeli portion of the Mt. Hermon, but even took over the Syrian part of the mountain. For the rest of the war, Syria considered regaining the captured territory to be their most crucial military objective. The battles over the Syrian portion of Mt. Hermon were the most difficult and bloody conflicts in northern Israel. The toughest and strongest units were sent there, and even they were each only given two weeks before being transferred out, to be replaced by fresh troops.

“My unit was a small one, only 44 men, and we were not an elite unit, but we were sent to do guard duty on the areas already controlled by Israel. Rockets and shells rained down on us from all sides. During the first few days, every time I heard a whistling shell I would try to duck or run for cover, but I soon stopped trying because there were so many shells hurtling toward us that one place had no advantage over any other.

“With much heartache we watched soldiers fall in great numbers all around us each day, and spent a large part of our time hauling in the wounded and casualties. My unit was there for 16 days under a constant deluge of shells and rockets, yet, somehow, not a single person in my unit was even wounded. There were units around us that were totally wiped out, but from my unit, not a one.

“We thought it was strange, but in the thick of the battle we didn’t have time to dwell on the phenomena. Then we were replaced, and called back to the rear. As we were traveling in our convoy, a mine blew up under one of our trucks, destroying the truck and sending the men in the back flying through the air. But, miraculously, all the men got up, dusted themselves off, and walked away with nothing but minor cuts and bruises. By now we convinced something supernatural was happening to our unit, but that wasn’t the end.

“We continued our southerly journey, but now we were joined by other units which had been replaced. Suddenly, there was that dreaded whistle to which we were so accustomed, and then a huge explosion right in middle of the road we were using. The smoke settled, and we discovered that the unit right next to us had lost more than half their men, but somehow, once again, not even a single soldier in our unit of 44 was wounded. That’s my miracle!”

I couldn’t believe it. Here I was talking to a man that witnessed something so miraculous it reminded me of miracles from Exodus. I pressed him repeatedly, “What merit did your unit have? What did you guys do? Who was in your unit?” I tried and tried, but came up with nothing. He told me that until today, although he thinks about it constantly, he can’t figure it out. “The only thing I can say is that G-d controls this world. Every bullet has its address, and we simply weren’t on any of them.”

I sat back in shock and disbelief, trying to make it all work out in my mind. Suddenly, clarity came shining through, like a ray of sunlight piercing gray cloud cover. This answered our paradox from before! Everyone has free will, and can choose to do evil, but G-d still controls the destiny of every individual. There were thousands of Syrians making evil choices, shelling our soldiers with the hopes of shoving every last Jew into the Mediterranean. Yet G-d decided where those shells landed. Free Will and Destiny are not polar opposites; they can play on the same field.

Then I remembered how a few years ago, Ehud Barak, the prime minister of Israel, made a choice to offer Yasser Arafat a Palestinian state in the majority of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Barak’s proposal included the annexation of 69 Israeli settlements, which would be given over to the Palestinians carte blanche. (Just to give you some perspective, in the summer of ’05 when Israel made the drastic error of giving Gaza over to the murderers, an event that pained the Jewish people more than any other event of the last decade, only 21 settlements were uprooted.) In my opinion, there has never been a more evil choice by a head of state in Israel, but Ehud had free will, and he exercised it in the worst possible way.

Yet, the fate of Jewish destiny was still in G-d’s hands, and the most remarkable thing happened – Yasser Arafat refused! To this day historians are scratching their heads, unable to fathom why Arafat would turn down the offer of a lifetime, but, as my cab driver would assert, “Every offer has its reply, and that one’s reply was a no.”

I continued with this train of thought and remembered the winter of 1991, the first one after my family moved to Israel. We came just in time for the Gulf War, gas masks, sealed rooms, and sirens wailing in the night. These experiences told of yet another person who made a terrible choice, one that involved launching 39 Scud missiles at the heart of Israel. But for all the evil intent of Saddam Hussein, they simply didn’t cause the damage he hoped for. They splashed into the Mediterranean, they fell in the desert, and the one that fell in the center of Tel Aviv, simply didn’t detonate. Bad choices on the part of bad people, can’t change Jewish destiny one iota.

I got out of that cab, into the bright Israeli sunshine, and stopped to reflect on the undisputable fact that the sunshine isn’t the only thing shining down on our precious Holy Land.

Leiby Burnham, LMSW, is a rabbi, psychotherapist, and writer. He lives in Detroit with his wife, an ICU nurse, who is on strict orders to “leave her patients at work” and their two daughters, Orah and Shifra. Rabbi Burnham works for the Jean and Theodore Weiss Partners in Torah program of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, where he does community outreach, and runs a Jewish educational programs at University of Michigan, Wayne State, and Oakland University. He taught learning-disabled high school students for eight years in NYC, while receiving Rabbinical training at Shor Yoshuv Institute, and obtaining his Masters in Social Work from Yeshiva University.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.