Can the Commandments Free Us from Fate?

Born into a chaotic tempest of a family, I had once looked to astrology to light a path through the storm. As I came closer to the Torah, I left my astrology books behind and turned to God with my prayers.

 

Nevertheless, I wanted to understand the relationship between astrology, Torah, and divine providence. On the one hand, the Torah affirms that God delegates power to the constellations to carry out His will: “He counts the number of the stars; He gives them all their names” (Psalms 147:4). Rabbi David Kimchi, the medieval biblical commentator and philosopher known as the Radak, says that a “name” of a star refers to its function, that is, the way God uses the celestial body as a messenger to govern the universe. The Talmud attests to the constellations’ influence on human personality. It tells the story of a man born with a prominent Mars who is encouraged to express his natural aggressive tendencies in a constructive manner by becoming a kosher butcher, circumciser, or surgeon (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 156a).

 

Yet there are laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy expressly forbidding Jews from consulting astrologers about the future. Our biblical prophets scold diviners, soothsayers, and those who worship the stars as if they govern independently of God. Moreover, Jews are said to be “above the mazal,” liberated from the influence of the planets.

 

What is this superpower of which Jews were endowed, I wanted to know. What kind of kryptonite do we possess, allowing us to ward off the influence of the heavenly bodies whose rotation God invests with such profound powers? How could Jews escape the constellations’ influence when they too dwell under the heavens along with the rest of humanity?

 

Puzzling over this dilemma, I realized it is our performance of the divine commandments that frees us from our mazal, or fate. How does this work?

 

Astrology posits that each of us is made up of a unique combination of the basic elements of fire, air, earth, and water. Like everything in God’s creation, each of these elements has a positive and negative expression, weakness and strength. Thus, fire is full of warmth, energy, and enthusiasm, but can break out and destroy. Air is stimulating and flexible, but can be flighty and unreliable. Earth is solid, traditional, and dependable, but can be prone to lethargy, materialism, and sensuality. And water can flow with empathic feeling, yet brood and despair. The arrangement of the planets at the precise moment we emerge into the world at birth imprints these secrets of our souls. That inheritance—our cosmic DNA, if you will—reflects our nature.

 

However, the mitzvot, the wise and compassionate instructions of an infinite, loving Creator rescue us from our instincts (and their inevitable consequences). Greeting everyone with a smile as we are expected to do, despite having the taciturn Capricorn on the cusp of our first house, for example—breeding a natural reserve—we can merit receiving the warmth from others that might not have been offered, had we exhibited our typical frown.

 

With a preponderance of air signs, we might find that juicy piece of gossip nearly irresistible to hear and pass on. Yet when we resist, not only do we sanctify ourselves and our Creator, but we shape our characters in a different direction by our free choice.

 

Weighed down by many planets in earth signs, we may find getting up early for prayers every day as hard as Sisyphus pushing that boulder up the hill. Yet when we compel ourselves to do it anyway, out of love for God and a desire to serve Him, we are essentially freeing ourselves from our mazal, becoming worthy of entirely new blessings from our loving Creator. All the opportunities earned by this person who acts with alacrity in a resourceful, kind, and ethical manner now bring this newly recreated soul her own form of Heavenly grace.

 

In these examples, we can see how God’s justice is exquisitely calibrated to our individual differences. According to the Talmud, we are not judged in comparison to others, but rather, against our own potential, which only God can know (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 16a). Thus, the person for whom getting out of bed early for prayers is like moving a mountain, earns more merit for doing so than the person whose nature allows him to spring out of bed in the morning like Tigger, Winnie the Pooh’s sidekick. And the person for whom resisting gossip is like turning down a sweepstakes win earns more merit for doing so than the naturally circumspect individual.

 

Each of us has our battles, while the Torah shows us a path to cultivating the sublimity of character of the homegrown saint. Within its discipline, the Torah enables us to find our very freedom.

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