Do Jews believe in luck?

By Chaim Sweet

Many people remain most concerned during this time period – as a historical time of calamity for the Jewish people. The ultimate calamity being the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem. Many consider it an inauspicious time. A time of bad luck. This is a difficult concept to understand and I want to dive deep into this concept. Do Jews really believe in bad luck?

The Gemara in Taanis seems to me to make two main points on the topic of Tisha B’Av (the 9th of Av) while in the process of figuring out exactly when the Bais Hamikdash was destroyed. At least that was my impression of the process. The first point is the well known cheyt (sin) of the meraglim (the biblical spies who were sent into the land Canaan) – Klal Yisroel cried when the meraglim returned with their report on Eretz Yisroel (the land of Israel). The reason why it was a cheyt is because even though Hashem had promised them Eretz Yisroel, on their level of having a clear knowledge of Hashem, having witnessed miracles on a regular basis, it was a serious error on their part to cry based on a report from spies, when the Creator of the Universe guaranteed it to them already. Hashem decreed then that since you cry now with no real cause (due to their lack of Bitachon (belief or faith) and or Emuna) your punishment will be that at this time your children will cry for generations to come. Therefore the judgement scales during this time frame will be tilted. The second point the Gemara later makes is that (הלכך therefore) one should not arrange a court date during this time. Tosfos explains that the הלכך / therefore is going on the phrase previously stated that Hashem will do good things during good times and “bad” things during “bad” times. Interestingly the source quoted to substantiate the good in good times and bad in bad times is that the Yeshua at the end of days will come in Nissan, a presumably good time. So according to Tosfos it reads: Hashem will do good things in good times and bad things in bad times, THEREFORE don’t go making a court date around now. Point #1: the punishment for crying is future generations will cry causing the scales of judgment to be tilted. Point #2: Hashem does good things in good times, and bad during bad times, therefore don’t make court dates during the 9 Days.

Clearly it would seem that this Gemara is not going in my favor to bolster my premise that we don’t believe in “bad luck” or the power of a time to deflate our zchusim (merits) BECAUSE of it being a bad time.

However, the topical understanding of this Gemara presents a few difficulties:

  1. As a rule with only one exception – a generation does NOT pay for the sins of previous generations. The exception being if the following generation chooses to follow the same path of misdeeds as the previous one, then they in effect are responsible for the same sins. I intentionally avoided using the word “inherits” because if the new generation doesn’t change its path, it’s clearly a new, earned aveyra for the new generation, and not an unfair or unjust passing on of the father’s “debt” to the innocent son. If that’s the case (and it is) why would Hashem decree “crying for future generations”? It’s seemingly a contradiction to our basic accepted tenet of Hashem’s justice system and His “Justness” in His Justice.
  2. Assuming Hashem’s consistently and endlessly just, what sort of justice is in the punishing of the  Dor haMeraglim (generations of the biblical spies) by taking it out on their children and not them? Seems to me that us future generations got the short end of that stick and they got away without any Justice at all.
  3. If the Gemara makes the point of the 3 Weeks and the 9 Days being a time for crying and tilted judgment scales via point #1, wouldn’t point #2 and the lesson of point #2 – that we shouldn’t schedule court dates, be an unnecessary point made by the Gemara? Take point #1 and the tilted scales lesson and simply say “therefore don’t make court dates”. Leave out the entire second point; It’s extraneous. Or at least leave out the second portion of point #2 of bad times, bad things. It seems repetitive and pointless, and we can conclude the same lesson without it.
  4. What exactly makes a “good time” good, and a “bad time” bad? I would think the defining characteristic of a Good Time would be when Hashem does good, and similarly the reverse for Bad Times. Very odd equation; seems pretty obvious, and even if it wasn’t obvious – one could derive from a single statement of Hashem doing Good during Good Times that the next logical progression would be – Bad in Bad Times. Why the seemingly obvious statement?

In order to answer the issues and questions of 1 and 2, the questions of how to reconcile the contradiction between generations not inheriting the sins of their fathers, and Hashem’s decree of crying for future generations, and the question of how it was a punishment for the actual generation of the Meraglim, it’s important to analyze the actual aveyra committed and the resulting punishment incurred.

So what exactly did Klal Yisroel do wrong? As stated earlier, Klal Yisroel cried. They cried over the report of the meraglim and the tears they shed were empty tears and the rationale for their tears was baseless. Why was it empty? The meraglim returned with reports that certainly could cause fear. Their report painted a picture of circumstances that could at least implant apprehension into their hearts. I would like to suggest that the aveyra they committed was two fold.

  1. At this point in time Klal Yisroel had seen and experienced the undeniable reality and presence of Hashem on a continuous basis. They saw the mon מן and they saw the shchina and the ananei hakavod daily. Hashem was a tangible experience for them. For them to lose sight of the reality of Hashem and even momentarily forget that they were guaranteed Eretz Yisroel from the greatest Guarantor was untenable. But maybe, maybe even that could have been excusable if not for one other fact.
  2. The reality that there were two meraglim that returned with a positive report. Yehoshua and Calev offered an alternative perspective to the disturbing reports of the other meraglim. Klal Yisroel had a choice – to accept the negative reports or accept the positive. Perhaps had all reports agreed, it could be humanly conceivable that they could momentarily fear what they were facing – but that wasn’t the case. They denied Hashem in that moment and the crying they did was empty and wrong.

That being the case Hashem punished them for their errors. As we know, Hashem punishes Mida Kneged Mida (measure for measure). Because Klal Yisroel’s aveyra was their baseless crying, Hashem decreed that their children would cry on that day, and their tears would have purpose. How was this justice? Wouldn’t justice be to punish the actual Dor haMeraglim with something then and there? The answer is yes. And they were. Because nothing is as painful and a reason to cry more than the knowledge that your children will suffer. As parents we can easily understand that when harm comes to our children – we almost irrationally hope and wish that the harm had come to us in their stead. This was their punishment – Hashem gave their empty tears the purpose it had lacked.

Now that question #2 of how it was justice for the Dor haMeraglim is answered, we can approach the question of how it’s justice for us and all generations after the Dor haMeraglim. As we know, Hashem does not pay the sons for the errors of the fathers. So how is it justice that we are still to this day crying? The answer would be that as long as each generation continues to lose sight on our own levels, the reality of Hashem, and choose to deny the positive “reports” and become despondent upon empty rationales we in fact are committing the same errors as previous generations and therefore invite the same punishments on ourselves. What that means in effect is, although we are not the Dor haMeraglim, we are representatives of their actions. Should we choose to uproot their actions by changing ourselves, there would be no suffering for us during these times.

That said, there still remains a question regarding the Gemara in Taanis that says this time will be a time of crying and the scales will be tilted in judgment. In light of our understanding that in not uprooting the midas hador haMeraglim it makes sense that we are still suffering for lack of the Bais Hamikdash, but why are the scales tilted? How is THAT justice?

I believe that this question and the “Tilted Scales” portion of the Gemara is very likely the source of the general misunderstanding people have about the 3 weeks being a time of “bad luck” and a time for us to watch our backs. The concept that Av and the 3 weeks being a time of Din likely comes from here and combining that concept with the Gemara’s resulting statement that one should not schedule court dates (and other important pivotal moments) because Hashem does bad things in bad times understandably lends itself towards the thinking that we are “more likely” to fail in our endeavors and that calamity is a “likelihood.”

However, when one takes this idea and holds it to the light of what we know of Hashem’s endless chesed and the fact that He is always consistent and rational and does everything justly and fairly and with love – always towards the goal of our ultimate benefit and good, in this world and the next, maintaining the belief that the 3 weeks is a time for looking over our shoulders and jumping at every small noise is just not possible. Perhaps this is extreme, but it’s possible that maintaining that belief is actually somewhat of a perpetuation of the aveyra of the Dor haMeraglim. Their error was in losing sight of the reality of Hashem in light of bad news. Are we not losing sight of the reality of Hashem when we see the bad things that seem to happen especially during the 3 weeks and attribute it to bad luck and chance? There is no such thing as chance. Hashem decrees and it happens, there is no room for error or mishap or luck. Entertaining that thought on any level is the same path Klal Yisroel took when they heard the reports of most of the meraglim. Hashem promised Eretz Yisroel to them and there was no possibility of it not happening. So too nowadays – we have an obligation to rely on Hashem and have Emuna in Him. Hashem remains consistent at all times. Losing sight of that because of what happens around us is denying Hashem and believing in the negative we see.

In reflection of this, how do we understand the “tilting of scales”? According to Rabbi Cohen it works like this: As another friend pointed out Hashem is “notzer chesed l’alafim” and the “Zocher chasdei avos umeyvi goel l’vney beneyhem“. And he’s right. But the transference of our father’s accomplishments isn’t without respect to whether they are good or bad. Hashem is “Notzer CHESED” and “Zocher CHESED”. Hashem in His INFINITE chesed ONLY transfers the chesed and merits. When it comes to inheriting from our ancestors, it’s a one way, automatic chesed street. And thankfully year round we have zchus avos on top of our own merits to assist us. However; there are 3 weeks a year that the zchus avos reservoir is empty for us. It’s not empty as a punishment to us. It’s empty because there IS no zchus avos to access. It’s the reality. Our avos during this time of year unfortunately failed and denied Hashem in lieu of the negative reports of the meraglim. That lack of zchus in reality was a punishment for the Dor haMeraglim because they knew that their empty tears caused us to lack the Zchar they could have extended to us now. But it’s not a punishment to us. As another friend pointed out, we have 49 awesome weeks with extra zchar plowing away for us. But Hashem can’t give us zchus avos that doesn’t exist. On Rosh Hashana we have the akeyda working for us. But now there isn’t the extra to access. That’s what the Gemara means when it says the scales are tilted. Because all year they are actually tilted for us positively, but now because they are not where they usually are, they become “tilted” from the norm and we remain standing on our own zchusim. This doesn’t mean that Hashem leaves us, or that his chesed isn’t still there.  We are not “more likely” to be hurt now. The words “more likely” are kfira.

What the lack of zchus avos translates into for us however, is that we have implemented customs to avoid certain pivotal moments such as court dates and important business dealings. This is not because these moments are likely NOT to go our way. The reason for this is because we are incapable of having an exact enough cheshbon of our own merits to know that we will succeed on our own zchusim alone. Because we don’t know that, THEREFORE we avoid those things because what we do know for sure is that we lack the extra of our zchus avos. This explains why under circumstances that we can’t postpone things because if we do the result will definitely be bad al pi Derech hateva, we are allowed to proceed. Because the only reason we are avoiding them is because we know we lack the zchus avos guarantee. But if we know it will go bad if we don’t do it, we might as well proceed on our own zchusim alone. Again, this is not about chance or bad luck. This is about our own lack of knowledge of our own levels and merits. That said, if an individual among us was sure of his zchusim, the 3 weeks would be the same for that person as any other time of the year. Just to avoid confusion – the reason we don’t swim during the 3 weeks is because we are supposed to limit our pleasures during the 3 weeks and more so during the 9 Days. It’s not because it’s a sakana, It’s because we are mourning the loss of the Bais Hamikdash. When Moshiach comes because we’ve uprooted the Mida of losing sight of Hashem (sinas chinam is an expression of denying Hashem because we are hating his creation), Tisha B’Av will be a holiday of joy and happiness and we will be able to swim and listen to music to our hearts content.

This next part I wasn’t able to discuss with Rabbi Cohen, so if it lacks anything it’s because of me.

I think once we understand the mechanism behind the aveyra of the Dor haMeraglim and the resulting punishment and how that event impacts us, it’s easier to understand the second point the Gemara makes of “Hashem does good things in good times and bad in bad times” and we can attempt to answer the questions on that point. The 4th question was – what defines good times and bad times? It seems obvious that when Hashem does good, it’s a good time, and when He does “bad” it’s a bad time. The answer I think may be simple and can be arrived at by asking – why? Why does Hashem do good or bad? The answer is simple – when we do good and establish a time as good, Hashem does good to us, and when we do the reverse, the reverse occurs. The 3 weeks is considered a bad time because it was then that Klal Yisroel committed the aveyra of crying with no purpose and denying the reality of Hashem and his guarantee. Due to that infraction the 3 weeks became a bad time. But that structure implies 2 things. If the time became bad because of Klal Yisroel’s actions, it can also become good because of our actions. But until we can be mesaken the aveyra by uprooting it in our lives, the time will remain what we have allowed it to be established as – a bad time. The 2nd implication is that once a time has been established as a good or bad time, Hashem causes the respective good or bad to occur in the corresponding time frame. I think based on this that it’s mashma (it can be inferred) that Hashem delays the bad we deserve until the 3 weeks. I think that makes sense. But what I’m unclear on and still remains a question to me is that if the bad gets delayed until the 3 weeks, isn’t that possibly unfair? Because were the bad to fall during the other 49 weeks we could access our zchus avos to mitigate it. On the 3 weeks we lack the extra merit, so it might not be fair? You could probably answer that it’s only the bad that can’t be mitigated via zchus avos that is delayed until the 3 weeks and THAT would be a chesed Hashem because He is providing us with extra time to do tshuva instead of hitting us with it immediately. I think that sounds good. And therefore, while the scales are tilted we avoid certain activities during this time. However, that equation of good during good times and bad during bad times in the microcosm of the individual’s scale is dependent upon whether the individual himself has uprooted the Mida of the Dor haMeraglim. As long as the equation holds true, even on an individualistic level – it’s wise to avoid a pivotal moment where we lack zchus avos.

Anyways, I think the answers culminate into this: good and bad times are established by us. So although the 3 weeks is a bad time, set for Hashem to carry out the bad on it – this time of bad is a representation of Hashem’s endless chesed of providing us with the time to focus on how much we miss our deep connection to Him via the Bais Hamikdash and the ability to utilize the time leading up to now as a vehicle to reinvigorate our Emuna and Bitachon despite the negative reports of our days and do tshuva. In our efforts to that end we can turnover the bad that was delayed until now. But more so, if we can find the means to inspire ourselves and live and breathe the reality of Hashem – we can uproot the aveyra and Mida of the Dor haMeraglim that we have allowed to carry on till now and change the established status of this time period. It’s within our power to not only change ourselves, but to reestablish for generations to come that these 3 weeks will be a time of laughter and happiness! Although we may lack the tangible clarity of Hashem’s existence that our ancestors enjoyed we have an opportunity now that they never had, and one that has the potential to be greater in good than their bad was bad. We can see the  light of Hashem and focus on His chesed to us and His never ending love for us, the instances of Hashgacha Pratis in our lives and build that focus into a crescendo, binding it to the yearning in our hearts and souls to return that love to our Eternal Source. And then we will shine our Emuna and Bitachon into the darkness around us, despite AND BECAUSE of our lack of tangible clarity of Hashem that generations before us enjoyed. Our commitment to flourish despite what we are missing will be the act that transforms this time from bad to good. And rising from the ashes of our destruction and aching loss, we will illuminate the world with our trusting faith.
הַבֵּט מִשָּׁמַיִם וראה כִּי הָיִינוּ לְלַעַג וְּקֶלֶס בַּגּוֹיִים. נֶחְשַׁבְנוּ כַּצֹּאן לָטֶבַח יוּבַל
לַהֲרֹג ולְאַבֵּד ולְמַכָּה וּלְחֶרְפָּה. וּבְכָל זאת שִׁמְךָ לֹא שָׁכַחְנוּ!
Look down from heaven and see that we have become an object of scorn and ridicule among the nations. We are considered as sheep sent to be slaughtered – Killed and smitten, and disgraced.

And yet with, and DESPITE, ALL THIS – we have not forgotten your name!

If you are reading this, well kudos to you.

Have a meaningful and easy fast.


Author: StandardCommentary

We provide analysis on wide ranging, impactful news across the globe.

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