FATE AND KARMA
“Laban said, It is not the practice in our place to put the younger before the older.” (Genesis 29:26)
Today I want to speak of two words which are often overused and misunderstood – fate and karma. Something bad happens to us and we say, “This is my fate.” Or perhaps we say, “This is my karma.” Sometimes we say both, “This is my fate and my karma.” But the words have entirely different meanings and come from different traditions.
Fate comes from the ancient Greeks. It refers to humans being victims of events beyond their control, often at the hands of capricious gods. When Oedipus was fated to murder his father and marry his mother, events were set into motion beyond the power of any human. In Sophocles’ famous play, Oedipus Rex, when his parents learned of the oracle regarding their son, they tried infanticide. It failed, and as fate would have it, Oedipus killed his father Laius and married his mother Jocasta. When he learned what he had done, he put out his eyes in horror. (Greek tragedies are never pleasant.)
Fate means events are beyond our control. Perhaps this is best described by the saying from Omar Khayyam’s The Rubaiyat, “The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on. Nor your piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all your tears wash out a word of it.”
Karma comes from ancient India, and is a key part of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Events in our life happen because of our actions. But they are actions we performed in a previous life. These traditions believe in Samsara, we humans are reborn over and over again, until we can finally escape the cycle. Our behavior in one life will affect our destiny in the next. Karma is a brilliant solution to the problem of suffering. We suffer in this life because of our actions in a previous life. If we do good in this life, our next will be more positive.
Fate and karma come from two separate traditions. Both agree that in our life we are victims of forces beyond our control. Sometimes that is true, but often we have far more control than we think. To quote another famous poem, Invictus by William Ernest Henley, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” We humans are not mere flotsam and jetsam, carried about by the waters of chance. This is clearly indicated by a scene in this week’s portion.
Last week we read how Jacob took his older brother Esau’s birthright and then his blessing. The Torah does not seem to condemn his action. But this week we read how Jacob works seven long years to marry Rachel, the woman he loves. At the end of the seven years, following the wedding ceremony, he learns that he has married Leah, Rachel’s older sister. He confronts his father-in-law Laban on the deceit, and Laban answers, ”It is not the practice in our place to put the younger before the older.”
Jacob learns that what goes around comes around. Actions have consequences. The negative energy we put out into the world can come back to burn us. Events are not always random, but often require some serious soul searching. (By the way, today at a Jewish wedding, the groom literally lowers the veil onto his bride. It is called a bedecken. We do not want to repeat Jacob’s mistake.)
When bad things happen to us, we can follow the Greek tradition and call it fate. We can follow the Hindu tradition and call it karma. Or we can follow the Biblical tradition and see it as a time of soul searching, what the Rabbis called Heshbon HaNefesh “an accounting of our soul..” In many cases we need to take some responsibility and think about what we might do better. How can we improve our lives. The Jacob story in Genesis is a perfect time to reflect on how each of us is master of our fate and captain of our soul.