Stuck with luck

We tend to believe that we are responsible for our own lives, or that things happen for a reason. But life is not a level playing field


Instead of congratulations, Jews tend to wish each other "mazeltov" - "good luck" with the emphasis on "good". Fortunes, as Jews know only too well, can be easily reversed. Luck is a dicey concept.

Allow for luck, and life starts to feel terribly tenuous, disordered, out of control. After I once survived a serious car crash, everyone kept telling me how "lucky" I was, and it was this that brought the trauma home to me: "you're lucky to be alive" seemed to imply that I had somehow dodged my fate, that I deserved to die.

Besides, telling someone they're "lucky" is never much of a pleasantry when the "lucky" person can generally detect an unspoken but barely disguised threat within it: "what you're lucky enough to have, you could just as easily not have". Or even: "what you're lucky enough to have, I might have had instead of you".

So, given the hazards of chance, it's little wonder that many prefer to imagine that the things that happen, whether good or bad, happen for a reason. Or that so many of us like to believe in personal autonomy - in a life we can control. Religions, political ideologies, philosophies and psychologies all at times proceed as if there were no such thing as luck - as if we were entirely responsible for our own lives. Luck, after all, not only plays havoc with our best-laid plans, it throws a spanner in the works of our most cherished ideals.

Take justice, for example. Justice is a beautiful dream and, as we approach Rosh Hashanah, we can say, too, that it's a very Jewish dream. But dream it is. For there are no scales of justice that could accurately weigh up all the evidence or take into account every single variable that has impacted on our case.

Life is not a level playing field. No two people start from the same place with exactly the same advantages and disadvantages. We're, each of us, thrown into the world as dice and must start from wherever we are. Hence no judge can know, no more than we ourselves can know, to what extent we're the authors of our own fates and to what extent the creatures of happenstance.

We must be honest with ourselves about this, otherwise we'll view each other in the wrong spirit, in the spirit of competition where fortune becomes a virtue and the lack of it a vice. And life is not a competition, no matter what they tell us in school, or on talent shows, or on the back of cereal boxes. There is no way to compare the incomparable, which all of us are.

But it isn't hard to see why we still thirst for justice. Not only because justice evokes a fairer, more equitable world but because there remains something in the notion of justice as a finely balanced system of adjudication, where the punishment fits the crime and every sinner gets what he or she deserves. Likewise, there is comfort to be derived from the idea that actions have necessary consequences, that one thing leads to another. Such a world may be unforgiving but at least you know where you are.

Forgiveness, though, offers us no such guarantees. It's one of the reasons, I imagine, why Jonah, that most reluctant of biblical prophets, flees God's command to go to Nineveh to get the people to repent.

When Jonah tries to dodge his fate by getting on a boat headed elsewhere, a tempest starts up and the seamen cast lots to divine who is to blame. Jonah draws the shortest lot and divines that the storm is God's vengeance on him, and so he decrees his own punishment: death by drowning.

But the seamen who've held the lottery aren't quite so sure what it portends. They wager Jonah may be in with a chance and don't suppose that he deserves to die.

For Jonah, on the other hand, the lot is his lot: the absolute judgment on his life, the end.

But, as we know, a fish saves Jonah. So he does get a second chance, and he does get the Ninevans to repent - and God gives them a second chance, too. Only, Jonah doesn't like second chances. He doesn't like chance at all. He longs to live in a consequentialist universe where every outcome confirms a rule.

He hates forgiveness. When God forgives the people of Nineveh, Jonah once again wants to die, preferring death because death is certain and life isn't - it's open, intolerably so.

Jonah, you could say, believes too exclusively in justice and won't allow any other values to impinge on his vision of the world.

But it's not on Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, that we read the Book of Jonah; it's on Yom Kippur. On the Day of Atonement, we recite our stories of lotteries and luck. If Rosh Hashanah honours that vital sense we have of ourselves as being in control of our lives, then Yom Kippur, which begins by ceremoniously annulling all vows, whispers something else into our plaintive ears: that we may be less in control than we're wont to think.

On Yom Kippur, we recognise the cruelty in a rhetoric that would speak solely in terms of the deserving and the undeserving as opposed to the fortunate and unfortunate. But, as varied as our fortunes are, Yom Kippur also tells us we do have certain chances in common.

We all have a chance at forgiveness, for example. Although we can only really forgive ourselves, and each other, if we first understand how limited we are, and have always been, by luck. For it is not to our credit if and when we get lucky. Neither is it our fault if and when we are unlucky. Nor is it our fault when others are unluckier than we are - or the fault of others who have greater luck than we do.

Nobody can take the credit or the blame for luck. And yet, to recognise the role of chance is to get a chance. How so? Not, I think, by doing away with our Rosh Hashanah-esque commitment to be responsible for ourselves, for others, and for a world that we have vowed to change for the better - to render it more just. Rather, by acknowledging, as we do on Yom Kippur, that to be fully responsible we must give up the pretence that our responsibility has no limits.

Sometimes, that is, things change by our efforts, and sometimes they change only when we take our hands off the wheel. And while Heaven alone knows how exactly to tell the difference between what we can and can't control, our days of awe, by moving between judgment and atonement, justice and forgiveness, responsibility and luck, offer us all a second chance, an opportunity - not an entitlement - a chance worth taking.

Good luck!

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