The Jewish Observer
News from Middle Tennessee's Jewish Community | Thursday, May 30, 2024
The Jewish Observer

Frank: Mark, an age- old question of why things happen is one that you and I have discussed several times. Is what happens in life predetermined and for a reason, or is what happens merely a random phenomenon? In his extremely popular book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner believed that things happen randomly and that his young boy did not die for any reason or that his death was predetermined. People all over the globe read his book and many believed he was correct. I am one of those people. A good example of this philosophy is found in the movie, Sliding Doors. 

In the movie, actor Gwyneth Paltrow wakes up one morning and leaves her sleeping boyfriend to take a train to work in downtown London. Upon arriving at work, she is notified that she is fired. Clearly upsent, she rushes down the subway stairs to board the train back home. As she approaches the trains closing sliding door, the doors shut closed, and she is unable to enter the train. The next scene shows her rushing down the stairs as she had in the previous scene but this time, she gets her elbow into the closing doors and is able to enter the train and begin her trip home. 

From that moment the scenes are split depicting how life unfolds when she does not make the train and when she does. In the latter situation, she arrives home to find her boyfriend in bed with another woman and in the former situation, the boyfriends lover has left, and she misses the encounter. The movie depicts how each of these two scenarios unfolds and drastically changes her life.  

In so many ways each time we choose one path over another, we are invoking the foundational principle of this movie. Turn left at a traffic light and arrive safely at your destination. Turn right and you are involved in a traffic accident that destroys your life. Decide at the last moment to attend a party and wind up meeting the person who becomes the love of your life. Most of the time we are unaware of how every choice we make in our daily activities plays a role in our lives, some small and insignificant but others quite large. Brian Klaas states in his new book, Fluke We control nothing, but influence everything.” He also writes, If every detail of the past created our present, then every moment of our present is creating our future too.” 

Mark, where do you stand on this question of why things happen?  

Mark: Frank, I have a quite different take on this than you do. Perhaps it is a more religious one as well. 

While I do believe some things are of our own making, or an extension of the choices we make or the decisions we take, I am open to the belief that there is a greater hand in at least some of where the roads in our lives may lead or take us. 

There are at least two distinctly different ways of considering the random occurrences that we may face in life.  

The first is to simply describe it as coincidence, the random sequence of cause and effect, the result of the choices we make or the situations we create and in which we therefore find ourselves.  

But there is a second way to look at those same occurrences or circumstances, and that is to include the possibility — however remote, perhaps — that there may be a Divine hand at play in this, perhaps either gently or firmly guiding us in a certain way, steering us along a specific path, tipping the scales one way or the other in our thoughts and decisions and actions we make and take. 

For me, even that possibility of an occasional Divine intervention is enough to both sustain and even strengthen my faith. I think that outlook creates greater opportunities for spiritual growth and meaning in life. 

Frank, how would you react to what I have just suggested? 

Frank: Actually, I like it very much as it fits my conception of a Divine presence in our lives. Since the God I believe in, is embedded in my DNA, and speaks to me through a still small voice within me. I can envision that Divine presence playing a role in how I act and what I do, thereby still being consistent with my view of the randomness of why things happen. We will never know for sure, which of these theories are at work in our lives, but it is fun to contemplate on the nuances of both.  

Mark: Within each of us, the past influences the present, and our present influences the future, ours and our community and our world. 

And somewhere within that chain of our inherited past and our investments in the future, perhaps God also plays a role in giving shape and form to each of the pathways we forge in each of our lives and the lives of our people. 

The Hebrew word for such interventions is Besheret, or that which is “meant to be,” or as God would wish for it to be. Life can be viewed as rational, predictable, and sensible, or as a series of coincidences and chance occurrences, or both.  



Perhaps, for all that can be explained or predicted, there are still moments guided by a greater Presence, beyond any of our abilities to fully comprehend or understand. 

Those are the true moments of holiness we can experience in life, when God touches our days with sacred worth and meaning, His hand in ours, guiding us along life’s path, towards a more meaningful journey and a more meaning-filled life. 


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Rabbi Mark Schiftan can be reached at 

Dr. Frank Boehm can be reached at