Torah from Around the World #140


Rabbi Elyse Goldstein


City Shul

, Toronto, Ontario Canada

Praying for Good Luck

This week’s parsha Chayei Sarah focuses on
what happens after Sarah dies: she is buried in the Cave of Machpela, and then
her lineage continues through her children, fulfilling the values and morals of
her life. Through Isaac’s marriage to the charming and unselfish Rebecca,
Sarah’s memory is blessed. But in order to find a wonderful wife for Isaac,
Abraham’s trusted servant (identified in the


Eliezer) first goes searching.

If you were sent on such a holy task, what
would you pray for? Good weather, to start. A nice place to stay. And, of
course, finding just the right match for Isaac. Instead, in Genesis 24:12 the
servant pleads, “

O Adonai, God of my master Abraham, give me a coincidence

” That’s a bit shocking: one of our Biblical characters praying for
luck!  And isn’t that a contradiction? Isn’t asking for a coincidence the
opposite of a coincidence just happening?

Nehama Leibowitz in her work

Studies in

(Jewish Agency, Israel, 1976, page 239) dedicates a whole chapter
to this strange prayer. She points out that the larger question the Rabbis ask
of this prayer is: if “chance” is a situation that just happens, how can one
pray to God for something to happen by “chance”?

But for me, the contradiction of asking for
God to make something happen “by chance” is not the main question. The
consequence of Leibowitz’s question for me as a liberal Jew is this: do we
believe that God is in charge of everything, even things that don’t have
rational explanations, even things that just happen by seeming coincidence? If
we don’t, and God is not in charge of everything, then just what is God in
charge of? The good things but not the bad? The bad but not the good? And what
if God is in charge of nothing at all? Then what is my relationship to a Divine
Being, and what is God’s relation to the world?

So, first, can anything just happen by itself
without God engineering it? According to traditional Judaism, there are no
coincidences: God’s providence is over everything. Known in Hebrew as


the traditional community holds that God uses Divine
Intervention for individual persons, and is literally watching over each and
every human being personally. There is no “luck” for all is determined.

Similarly in Eastern religions, luck plays no
role. Whatever happens to us is the result of karma – what we get in this life
is the result of our behaviour in a past life. Cause and effect are the natural
order – you reap what you sow. The totality of our actions and their
concomitant reactions in this and previous lives determine our future.

Yet in Judaism we say

mazel tov

which literally means “a good constellation/astrological sign for you!” – to
mean good luck. And most of us really believe in


: that we
either have it or don’t. Two different Talmudic passages argue the point that


and yet we still have free will; that we believe in “fate” and yet we can alter
our fate. In Moed Katan 28a, we read, “

Rava said:  Length of days,
children, and income are not contingent upon merit, but they are contingent on
mazel. For look at Raba and Rav Hisda both of whom were righteous men. When
either of them prayed, the rains came

.” This seems to suggest that there is
luck on some matters, but with meritorious behaviour, that luck can be changed
or altered. And in Shabbat 156a we read, “

Rav Yehuda said in the name of
Rav: What verse teaches that Israel is not governed by the planets? As it is
written: “And God went with him [Abraham] outside

.” (Genesis
15:5) Abraham said before the Holy One: O Sovereign of the Universe, my servant
will be my heir? The Holy One said: No. It will be one who comes forth from
your loins. Abraham answered: I looked at my astrology chart and I saw that I
am not able to sire a child. The Holy One answered: Leave the astrology, for
Israel is not governed by the planets.”

So when the Talmud says that we are not
subject to mazel, it means that we are not limited to our mazel. Our own
actions can determine our own fate. These Talmudic passages are offering a
compromise between no luck at all, and luck determining everything.

Denis Prager wrote the following in

Jewish Journal

, February 22, 2012: “

A world in which every individual
killed in a tsunami, a flu epidemic, by a drunken driver or by some falling
object was personally chosen by God to die at that time and in that way is a
world governed by a God whose morality is inscrutable. And Judaism has believed
since Abraham argued with God that God is morally understandable. So, guided by
reason, I have concluded what has to be rationally concluded: There is a lot of
luck, good and bad, in life


Eliezer’s prayer came forth from a deep place
in his soul; the place that has faith in Providence yet hopes luck is on his
side; the middle ground between trust in God’s control over the Universe and
trust in our abilities to manage and manoeuvre our own destinies. Leibowitz
concludes her original question by saying, “

Abraham’s servant entreated The
Almighty as the Prime Mover behind all things to arrange that matters should
work out in accordance with his desires


So… do you trust, or do you carry a ‘rabbit’s
foot” just in case?

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