Jewish Thought

The Illusion of Control

Someone once aptly observed that when we are young we learn, and when we age, we understand. Indisputably, one such understanding is the illusion that human beings are capable of being in complete control of their lives. We move about the world thinking that the manipulation of our circumstances will bring us the desired results. While there is no question that we are called upon to put forth our best efforts to juggle the particulars of our existence, it behooves us to recognize that at the end of the day, success is determined by the Almighty alone.  Consider the following: 

• An aviation expert was once invited to elaborate on the latest advances in the construction of aircraft. In his presentation he noted that while the industry has come a long way with newer and updated models, one cannot escape the fact that despite the most cutting-edge technology, airborne vehicles will always be at the mercy of the winds. Clearly what he was saying is that man’s input can go just so far, but that G-d, Master of the winds, is still in absolute charge.

• Some years back my friend Harriet,* a resident of Miami Beach, boasted that because she is such a super-organized balebusta, here she was, weeks before her son’s upcoming bar mitzvah, and all the food was cooked and stored in the freezer. Lo and behold, to the horror of all Floridians, one of the worst hurricanes in history hit the coast just days before the event. The power was out for days and, in some areas, for weeks. All of the food in Harriet’s freezer was spoiled. The simchah had to be postponed for a later, gentler time.


Once again, it was a painful reminder that “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” or as we say in Yiddish, “A mentch tracht un G-t lacht” (Man plans and G-d laughs). 

• The day of Henchie’s* youngest daughter’s wedding had finally arrived, dawning with a glorious June sun and perfectly blue sky. Henchie breathed a sigh of relief. Everyone was outfitted for the wedding and the many hitches she had feared had fortunately not come to pass. As they marched down to the chuppah, Henchie felt her face rapidly swelling up. Within minutes she was swept away to the nearest emergency room for evaluation; it turned out to be a severe allergic reaction. She missed the entire wedding. The good news, however, as Henchie reminds everyone, is that her couple is ecstatically happy, and “it will certainly go down in our family’s history as a most memorable event.” Henchie’s experience is another that verifies that while we are obligated to invest reasonable hishtadlus (effort) to navigate our days, we dare not lose sight of the fact that it is ultimately Hashem Who controls all events. It is He who calls all the shots, and if we think we have control, we are buying into the supreme illusion. In one of his recent divrei Torah my husband referred to our Sages’ statement that there are three “keys” that are exclusively within Hashem’s domain: the key to birth; the key to rain; and the key to “techiyas hameisim,” the resurrection of the dead.

In recent times science has tried to arrive at complete mastery over the phenomenon of birth, and while inroads have certainly been made in facilitating pregnancies and the birthing process, the actual miracle of the creation of life remains within the purview of the Almighty. The same is true for rain. The ability to either bring it about or prevent it has consistently eluded the scientific community. Resurrection of the dead is an area that is still in the realm of science fiction. These three areas are representative of all aspects of life over which we would wish to assume control but sooner or later meet with futility. However, while the keys to birth, rain and resurrection in the literal sense are not in our hands, a broader interpretation does allow for human intervention. Created in the image of our Maker, we too rule over these spheres in our own personal universe. The ability to give birth to a new spiritual initiative, opening a fresh chapter in the development of our neshamah, is a key that we actually do possess. Watering, nurturing and sustaining this newborn seed parallels the phenomenon of rain, which is yet another key we control. Finally, resurrection refers to the times in our lives when, having embarked on a positive path, we somehow stumble and fall,succumbing to pitfalls along the way. Yet we must not despair or lose heart. The key to resurrection is in our hands if we elect to use it. Granted, overcoming failure demands determination and courage, but the wherewithal to start over again is something we can always access. Thus when it comes to the physical circumstances of a person’s life, i.e., birth, rain and resurrection, G-d is in control. However, in matters of the soul, Hashem has given man bechirah, free will and the ability to make choices. In this sense, we are the ones who call the shots. That being said, even in matters of the spirit we need to call upon Hashem’s assistance.  May Hashem bless us with an understanding “borne of age”: the courage to change the things that we can change; the serenity to accept the things that we cannot; and the wisdom to know the difference.

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