Mitzvot (Illustrative)
Mitzvot (Illustrative)ISTOCK

There are, or have been, at least three distinctly different attitudes towards history and human actions.

One attitude is that there is no free-will at all, everything is pre-determined. The ancient Greeks called this “fate”, and taught that there are three Fates, goddesses who determine people’s destinies from birth: Clotho (the Weaver), Lachesis (the Allotter), and Atropos (the Inflexible).

Millennia later, the early Reformers of the Christian Church from the early 16th century onwards, such as Martin Luther in Germany, John Calvin in France, and Jonathan Edwards in the USA, taught a similar doctrine: that G-d alone determines in advance who will be good (and therefore “saved”) and who will be evil (and therefore eternally damned).

Finally, some post-modernists likewise posit that there is no free-will, everything is determined by genetics and environment.

This is an interesting, if depressing, agreement by pagan polytheist idolaters, some Christian denominations, and atheists: G-d, or the gods, or random genetics, pre-determine the entire human, there is no free-will, no human can decide to do good or evil, or to be good or evil.

Another attitude is that there is no direction and no purpose to life and to human history and development. All life evolved by chance out of some primordial “chemical soup”. Everything is random, nothing has ultimate meaning.

Paradoxically, these two ideologies, which should be mutually exclusive, actually overlap in post-modern extreme atheism. Both posit that there is no value to justice, indeed that no one can be judged and punished for evil or rewarded for good:

The one, because everything and everyone is pre-determined, therefore there is no free-will; the other, because everything is meaningless, so there is no objective good or evil.

Therefore both ideologies argue that rewarding and punishing humans is as meaningless as rewarding or punishing a computer which launches a missile or a rock which rolls down a hillside.

And then comes the Torah, which teaches unequivocally that these philosophies are wrong: G-d created humans in His own image, which implies purpose for human history; it also implies that people, created in His image, instinctively know good and evil and have the free-will to choose between them.

When the Rambam enumerated the thirteen fundamental Principles of Jewish Faith, he included belief in Divine reward and punishment:

“The eleventh Principle is that He, the Exalted One, pays good reward to those who keep the Mitzvot of the Torah, and punishes those who transgress its prohibitions…” (Commentary to the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 10:1).

Obviously, reward for keeping the Torah’s Mitzvot and punishment for transgressing them makes sense solely when there is free-will.

The Talmud records the aphorism of Rabba, son of Rav Huna: “We derive from the Torah, from the Prophets, and from the Holy Writings that Heaven leads a person along the path that he wishes to follow” (Makkot 10b, and compare Bamidbar Rabbah 20:12 and Tanhuma, Balak 8).

That is to say, everyone has free-will to choose whatever path he wants to follow, and G-d leads him on the path of his choice, whether for good or for bad.

And a Rabbinic aphorism similarly says, “The reward for a Mitzvah is a Mitzvah, and the reward for a sin is a sin” (Pirkei Avot 4:2, Avot de-Rabbi Natan 25:4, Tanhuma Vayak’hel 1, et al.)

That is to say: A Jew who commits a sin wants to sin, so G-d sends him additional opportunities to sin to fulfil his choice. And contrariwise, a Jew who performs a Mitzvah clearly wants to do Mitzvot, so G-d rewards him by giving him additional opportunities for additional Mitzvot.

Parashat Ki Teitze contains some very intriguing Mitzvot, which illustrate these principles. For example:

“You will not see you fellow-Jew’s ox or sheep wandering off and ignore them: you must surely return them to your fellow-Jew” (Deuteronomy 22:1).

Most Mitzvot are the kind of actions which one plans in advance to do: giving charity, putting on Tefillin, wearing Tzitzit, lighting Shabbat-candles, praying, studying Torah, washing one’s hands prior to eating bread, circumcising one’s son, keeping kosher – the list goes on and on, almost all Mitzvot are pre-planned.

Yet this is a Mitzvah which, by its very nature, no one can plan in advance to do. No one can step out of his house intending to find a fellow-Jew’s ox or sheep wandering off: it is a situation that one encounters (if at all) without intention. The same with the general Mitzvah of returning any lost object to its owner.

The same with the next Mitzvah:

“You will not see your fellow-Jew’s donkey or ox fallen by the roadside and ignore them: You must surely help them up” (v. 4).

This, too, is not a Mitzvah which anyone can plan in advance to do. It is by its very nature an event which one encounters without intention. It is an opportunity for a Mitzvah which G-d sends someone who deserves it.

And another one:

“If a bird’s nest chances to be before you on the way, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs, with the mother roosting on the fledglings or the eggs – do not take the mother with the young; you will surely drive the mother away, and the young you shall take for yourself” (vs. 6-7).

This, too, is not an event which anyone can plan: “If a bird’s nest chances to be before you…” – the operative word here is יִקָּרֵא, “chances”.

Rashi (commentary ad loc.), in his typical telegraphically brief style, comments: פְּרַט לַמְזוּמָן, “this excludes that which was prepared in advance”. The Rashbam similarly says, “It’s an opportunity which comes by chance”, and the Ibn Ezra explains he word יִקָּרֵא to connote “chance upon, coincidence”.

Now the terms “chance”, “coincidence”, “happenstance” and the like can have very different connotations to different people: depending on underlying philosophy, they can denote random haphazard events devoid of meaning, or they can denote events which we humans didn’t plan, but which were thrust upon us by G-d without our intention.

Obviously, when Rashi, the Rashbam, the Ibn Ezra, or any Torah-believing Jew speaks of “chance”, “coincidence”, “happenstance” and the like, they mean events which we didn’t plan, but which G-d decreed.

And this brings us back to Ben Azzai’s dictum: “Run to do an easy Mitzvah as much as for a difficult one, and flee from sin, because every Mitzvah pulls along another Mitzvah and every sin pulls along another sin, because the reward for a Mitzvah is a Mitzvah and the reward for a sin is a sin”.

So G-d Himself will send the opportunity for Mitzvot to any Jew who desires to fulfil Mitzvot. These Mitzvot which no one can plan are the perfect example.

Let us continue with another such Mitzvah, which we will encounter later in in our Parashah:

“When reaping your harvest in your field you forget a sheaf in the field, you will not return to take it; it will become the proselyte’s, the orphan’s, and the widow’s, so that Hashem your G-d will bless you in all the works of your hands” (Deuteronomy 24:19).

This, too, is not a Mitzvah which anyone can plan to do or do deliberately. It is impossible by definition to deliberately forget a sheaf in the field when harvesting.

The Talmud records an incident:

“It happened once that a certain righteous man [חָסִיד] forgot a sheaf in his field, and said to his son: Go and sacrifice a bull as a Burnt-Offering and another bull as a Peace-Offering for me!

“The son asked: Father – why do you rejoice in this Mitzvah more than any of the other Mitzvot in the Torah?

“He told him: All the Mitzvot which G-d has given us in the Torah have to be done intentionally, whereas this one is done unintentionally, because if we do it intentionally then G-d doesn’t reckon it as a Mitzvah at all!” (Tosefta Pe’ah 3:8).

That is to say: The Mitzvah of not returning for a sheaf, and of leaving it instead for proselytes, orphans, and widows to glean applies solely to a sheaf which one has forgotten. You cannot fulfil this Mitzvah by deliberately leaving a sheaf behind.

Following the dictum that every Mitzvah pulls along another Mitzvah and the reward for a Mitzvah is a Mitzvah, it is eminently consistent to assume that G-d rewards a Jew who does Mitzvot by sending him opportunities like this.

This is how we understand the terms “chance”, “coincidence”, “happenstance” and the like.

And it is with this same understanding that we analyze another of this Parashah’s Mitzvot:

“When you build a new house, you shall make a fence for your roof; thus you will not put blood in your house if someone falls from it” (Deuteronomy 22:8).

The Talmud cites the analysis of the Tanna Rabbi Yishma’el ben Elisha, the great Master who was a friend and colleague of his contemporary, Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Yishma’el noted the exact wording of the Torah here, כִּי יִפֹּל הַנֹּפֵל מִמֶּנּוּ. We have translated this “if someone falls from it”, but the literal meaning is “if the one who falls will fall from it”.

This wording is intriguing, and Rabbi Yishma’el explains:

“This is someone who deserves to fall [to his death], destined for it ever since the Six Days of Creation; because after all the Torah calls him not נָפַל [the one who fell], but נֹפֵל [the one who falls]. In any event, rewards should be apportioned by the hand of meritorious people, and punishment by the hand of sinners” (Shabbat 32a and Sifri Deuteronomy, Ki Teitze 229).

That is to say: If G-d decrees that someone falls to his death, then the person will fall to his death. But you don’t want to be the instrument whereby G-d kills someone.

And this, too, implies that seemingly accidental death (in this case, someone slipping and falling off a roof) isn’t merely coincidence or random happenstance. But if G-d has decreed that someone dies seemingly by accident, then you do not want to be the agent by which he dies.

This is not, of course, to imply that everyone who dies in an accident is a sinner whom G-d has condemned to death. Obviously not. But it does imply that even if someone dies in a freak accident, you should aspire not to be the agent of his death; how much more so, then, when the person is innocent.

Parashat Ki Teitze concludes with the admonition always to remember Amalek’s attack on us:

“Remember what Amalek did do you when you were on your way out of Egypt: how he chanced upon you on the way and attacked the hindmost among you – all the weakest who were straggling behind” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19).

Again, the operative word is קָרְךָ, “chanced upon you”, from the word מִקְרֶה, “chance”, “coincidence”, “happenstance”.

Amalek doesn’t ascribe unplanned events to G-d’s Providence and guidance of human events. His entire philosophy is that the world is random, it has no direction or purpose, there is no meaning to human history.

This is the complete antithesis to Judaism, to the Torah that teaches that G-d created the world with a purpose, with a destiny.

G-d promises us reward and punishment for keeping or violating His rules.

Reward can be personal, as in “So that it will be well with you [singular] and you will prolong your [singular] days” (Deuteronomy 22:7).

Reward can also be national, as in “I will give the rain of your [plural] Land in its appropriate season” (Deuteronomy 11:14).

As the Ramban (Commentary to Genesis 17:1) notes, “there is no natural reason why the rains should come in their appropriate seasons just because we worship G-d, or why the sky should become iron [ibid. 19] when we sow in the Shmitta-year”.

Neither, we can add, is there any natural reason why driving the mother-bird away from her nest before taking the eggs or the young should result in a longer life.

The Torah indicates the causal connection between events, which the Amalekite ideology ascribes to happenstance, to random chance.

Coincidence?

No, G-d’s control over the world that He created for His purposes.