Can We Change Fate?

The soul is the kabbalistic key to discovering the secrets of life and death. If we constantly remind ourselves that soul dimensions should never be construed as physical entities, but are "patterned forces" like bubbles passing through various realities, we can use the teachings about souls to gain an uncommon perspective on the spiritual nature of the universe.

In an remarkable zoharic passage, Rabbi Eleazar asks Rabbi Simeon a question: "Since God knows that people will die, why are souls sent down to the world?"

Rabbi Simeon answered: "This is a mystery that is explained in the verse: 'Drink water from your own cistern and running water from your own well.' The term cistern designates a place where water does not flow naturally. [This metaphorically represents a soul that is in this world, not its "natural" habitat.] When a soul is not defiled in this world, it returns to its designated [natural] place in a way that is perfect on all four sides, above and below. When the soul ascends in this way...the waters [radiations] of lower consciousness flow upward [to higher consciousness], as if a cistern were being transformed into a well with running water. This process of the returning soul brings a new dimension of union, foundation, desire, friendship and harmony to the universe. Thus, the return of the perfected soul completes a union that was initially aroused by supernal love and affection... [and by so doing, it adds to the overall perfection of the universe]."

This is an amazing idea, adding an entirely new dimension to the concept of soul. When the soul's host thinks, speaks, and acts in ways that benefit the world through loving kindness, charity, bringing peace to neighbors, and other such deeds, then the higher dimensions of the soul are quickened, causing an activation in the realms of higher consciousness. Upon death, if a soul returns to its original source with its higher elements in a more perfected state, then the entire universe benefits by gaining a new level of harmony!

This idea dramatically alters our relationship with soul. We are not dealing simply with "my" soul and my karma. We are not victims of circumstance, servants to the king, small cogs in overwhelming machinery that constantly turns, grinding us to powder. Rather, we are connected via our soul to the source of creation and we can transform the flow of creation.

Many times we are drawn to acts of charity. Is it a lamed-vav tzaddik whispering in our ears? Are we under a decree that needs to be annulled? Even if we doubt this, what is there to lose when we feel an urge to perform an act of loving kindness? Indeed, some say that all acts of loving kindness give strength to the lamed-vav tzaddikim, and that these acts hold the world together. Who could argue with such a thought?

The sole purpose of the lamed-vav tzaddik is to raise holy sparks. In the process of doing so, he or she is constantly challenging fate. It is said that each of us has an aspect of the lamed-vav tzaddik within us. Does this mean that we can change our own fate and the fate of those around us? What is fate, how does it work, and how can we influence it?


Moshe Steinberg was a professor of international relations at Hebrew University on Mt. Scopus in Jerusalem. His intellectual gifts were enormous and his entire life was dedicated to academic excellence. Unfortunately, he did not tend to his own health. His long work hours combined with neglect for rest and proper nutrition led to a heart attack in his mid-fifties.

His son, Shlomo, was a friend of ours. He too was a brilliant scholar. Shlomo sent us frequent reports on his father's condition. Things seemed to get a little worse each day.

Initially Professor Steinberg had entered the hospital with severe chest pains. Within a few days it was determined that he needed immediate heart surgery. During the surgery, he went into cardiac arrest and they could not get the heart started for many minutes. At first the surgeons thought that the patient was lost. Although, the medical team succeeded finally in their efforts to resuscitate Dr. Steinberg, considerable brain damage had occurred. After surgery, the professor seemed to be partially paralyzed. He could not speak and could barely lift his head or arm. The doctors were not sure if he would ever teach again.

One week later, the surgeons had to do another procedure to stop internal bleeding. This time the professor did not wake up after the surgery and he lay in a coma for a few days.

Shlomo called us soon thereafter. There was a somber possibility that his father would never awaken again. Even if he did, he would probably be an invalid the rest of his life.

Shlomo told us that a special prayer group was being organized at the Western Wall to recite psalms and to give his father a new name. The Talmud teaches that one of the ways to change someone's fate is by changing their name.39 Shlomo and his family had done everything they could through prayer, charity, and commitments to come closer to God. Their last resort was to change his name.

The prayers lasted for a couple of hours. During that time, we gave the professor the new name his family had chosen for him: Raphael Brucha Steinberg, a name combining the healing power of God (Raphael) with the spirit of blessings (brucha). The next day, Raphael Brucha came out of his coma. 

For a few days the doctors thought he would never walk again, and there was some question about his mind. However, less than a week after his renaming, the professor began to sit up and speak. He described to his family an out-of-body experience in which he dwelled on a plane where everything was made of light. He thought that he was dead and the beings of light around him confirmed that this was so. He said that he had no regrets. But at some point he was informed that he was going to live as a completely different person than he had been. And then he woke up.

Professor Steinberg did in fact begin his life anew. After nine months of recuperation, he began to play music and fell in love with watercolor painting. Although he taught occasionally, his primary interest was to become an artist. Last I heard, eight years after his illness, he was spending his summers on the Italian Riviera, painting one or two canvasses every day.

There is a saying, "The number of children one has, the length of one's life and the degree of one's wealth do not depend upon a person's merits, but on mazzal."40 In Jewish mysticism, fate is often referred to as mazzal, which is usually translated as luck, but which also means the stars of the zodiac. The idea that we live under mazzal suggests that souls are fated from the beginning, dependent upon the flux and flow of the universe.

Kabbalists teach that the moon is the mystical vessel in which souls are gathered before they are released to the world. The moon in Kabbalah represents receptivity. When the moon is full, it is receiving the fullness of universal light and expansiveness. When the moon is new, it has no light and is in a more contracted state. Thus, the mystical implication is that souls are influenced by the phase of the moon when they become associated with bodies, each having different levels of expansiveness or contractedness. In modern terms, we would say that this describes why some people are more extraverted while others are more introverted, which seems to be our fate.

Some people think of fate as a fixed scenerio, but mystics suggest that it is flexible. When we engage in activities that raise consciousness, fate adapts itself to support such things. For example, the Talmud says that the income one will receive each year is determined by fate, "except for the money spent on [celebrating] the Sabbath and other holy days. One who spends more is given more, and one who spends less is given less."41 This teaches that fate is adjustable. In this instance, the celebration of Shabbat or another holy day is viewed as a consciousness raising activity, and so we get carte blanche to invite as many guests as we wish to our Shabbat table. In essence, for these events, God (fate) says: "I'll pick up the tab."

Although our lives are influenced by fate, Jewish mystics strongly believe that free will can dramatically alter our destiny. We are able to influence fate through skillful living. The more we realize the relationship between what we do and who we are, the more we regulate our own lives.

The Talmud says that we should be quick to offer bread to a poor person because, "It [mercy] is a wheel that turns in the world." Rabbi Gamaliel Beribbi said: "Whoever shows mercy to others is shown mercy by heaven; whoever is not merciful to others is not shown mercy by heaven."42

The high holy days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are built upon the idea that a person's fate is established for a year at a time. We say in the liturgy of Yom Kippur: "On Rosh Hashana it is inscribed and on Yom Kippur sealed [in the book of fate] how many will die and how many will be born, who will die at the preordained time, and who before this time [because of misdeeds]... who will rest, who will wander, who will be tranquil, who will suffer, who will be poor, who will be rich..."

Then the congregation says together, loudly, "but teshuva (changing conduct), tefilla (prayer), and tzeddakah (charity) cancel the harshness of this decree." The Talmud adds a fourth way to cancel a decree: changing one's name, but only in dire circumstances.

This summarizes the general attitude of traditional Judaism towards fate. Fate is a pattern for the garment we call life that has been sketched in a mystical book. But the sketch of fate is only an outline. We can significantly affect the final design of our lives by the way we cut the cloth of our fate, how we sew it, how we trim it, and especially by the material of life we choose. Ultimately, although the design of our fate may follow an essential prototype, like a dress, a shirt, or pair of pants, we have a great deal of freedom to modify to the finished product.

In addition to the fluidity of fate and the influence of free will as the modifying aspect, fate also can be changed by introducing a new factor into the universe, something unexpected. When the unexpected is also inexplicable, we call it a miracle. Miracles confront the laws of nature. Indeed, some say that fate is the natural order of things and any change in the flow of fate is miraculous.