Parshat Matot-Masei: Try Your Best – Then Pray for Luck
We live in a world that floods us with information and perspectives, making it possible for us to prepare ourselves for almost anything. I remember planning my schedule around unknown driving times, hoping traffic would be on my side so I wouldn’t be late for anything and trigger a cascade of lateness for the rest of my day. GPS technology appeared, and it quickly moved from providing me with maps to providing me with real-time traffic updates. My phone’s GPS now lets me know when to leave my house and arrive at my destination on time in the future, just by inputting the date and time I plan to drive. If there should be a sudden mishap on the road, my GPS will reroute me around it to fulfill the singular purpose of getting me there on time. Luck has been taken out of the equation.
A few years ago I was talking to a woman who lives in Alaska and she told me a friend of hers had a car with GPS. She said it was cute but useless. I asked her why it was useless (thinking it might be a signal problem) and she told me that most of the year the roads are buried under snow and ice so what difference does it make if the GPS tells you which road to take. She said that starting in grade school they’re taught how to survive in sudden bad weather and then hope that luck is on their side. In her world, technology is cute but training and luck carry the day.
The very notion of luck implies that success or failure are determined by some outside force, usually random. It seems to be a concept foreign to Judaism, where things in our lives speak of our intentions as filtered through our actions. In fact, the way we use the word luck in English has no counterpart in Hebrew. Rather than wishing someone good luck, in Hebrew we would say ‘behatzlacha’, which means ‘with success’. It is a statement of outcome, unlike luck, which is a statement of process.
So, what do we do with a Jewish calendar that implies that some months are lucky and some months are not? The Talmud tells us that the month of Adar is a lucky month for the Jewish people. It is the month when we celebrate Purim, and although Haman drew lots to decide when to attack the Jews, the lot came out on our lucky month, so we were advantaged at a time when we faced a planned genocide. According to our understanding, God’s protection was hidden in the fact that the lottery resulted in Adar.
Unfortunately, the opposite is true for the month of Av. It is considered to be the unlucky month for the Jewish people. It is the month of the destruction of our ancient Temples, the month of expulsions, the month in which Aaron died, the month when things align negatively.
This Shabbat is when we mark the beginning of the month of Av.
Where are these ideas of luck coming from? In this week’s Torah reading, parshat Matot-Masei, the people are told how to allocate portions of land to the tribes once they all enter Israel. First, everyone is told that land portions should be designated by the size of each tribe — larger tribes get more land. Interestingly, the Torah then says that each tribe will receive its land allocation by drawing lots. The commentaries immediately question which one it is. A rational reckoning would say tribal size corresponds with land size. Conducting lots would say that it’s the luck of the draw, so everyone has equal opportunities to a windfall.
I view it as a beautiful way to remind us that while we try to approach everything around us with cold, rational logic, we should always be humble enough to accept that some things lie beyond us. The Zohar tells us that everything depends on a bit of luck from above. In fact, the word ‘mazel’ (as in Mazel Tov) means ‘drippings from above’. The Sages told us that God wove inclinations into the fibers of creation. Some months will incline toward the positive while others will not.
We also know that each month in the Jewish calendar has an animal paired to it. The month of Av has a lion — it represents the predatory aspects of a lion and its ability to destroy. But we also know that the lion is the animal connected with the ancient tribe of Judah. There it represents strong leadership and ultimate redemption. Things in creation may incline a certain way, but the world is a dynamic place of opportunity and change. The two lions have opportunities to engage, and it can make us stronger.
As Av begins, and we read of land assignments and lotteries in the Torah, we remind ourselves that for a few weeks we plant our feet strongly on the ground and search for the opportunities to improve what we see around us. With a bit of luck on our side, negatives can become positives.
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