Bashert is False
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
The notion of bashert—“meant-to-be”—is extremely popular. How did it win so many fans? It did so in part, as it is pleasing to our egos to be exonerated from our faults, as when one deludes himself that all is pre-ordained including his errors. Maimonides corrects this error:
Permit not your thought to dwell upon that which is spoken by foolish gentiles and a majority of boorish Jews, that the Holy One, blessed is He decrees at the very embryonic state of every man whether he should be just or wicked. (Hilchos Teshuva 6:1)
When an individual or a people of a state do sin, the sinner transgressed consciously and of his own free will. (Hilchos Teshuva 5:2)
And, not solely because of having accepted the religion do we know that there is no predestination, but even by clear evidence of the words of wisdom. Because thereof it is said in prophecy that man is judged for his actions according to his actions, whether they be good or evil, and this is the very foundation upon which all the words of prophecy depend. (Hilchos Teshuva 5:5)
Upon making a bad business decision, or marrying a poor spouse, others comfort us with “It’s for a reason,” which cripples one from introspecting and abandoning poor values so as not to repeat the mistake. We then continue making poor decisions.
Bashert is not based on evidence. In fact, regarding our faults, the opposite is true: most evils in life are self-inflicted as Maimonides teaches (Guide, book iii, chap. xii). Our difficulties, most times, are caused by poor judgement. One loses a job or gets divorced due to poor character. One becomes poverty-stricken because he didn’t follow intelligence to prepare for an interview, or he sought jobs for which he was unqualified. Another person demands too high a wage and he too is rejected. And those who avoid all pain seeking pleasure alone, cannot stomach difficulties at work and leave their jobs, instead of accepting some hardship so as to pay rent and eat. Others yet speak viciously, and the offended person retaliates, causing grave harm at times. And many divorces occur due to selfishness. All the above problems could have been be avoided through intelligence. None of these problems are pre-ordained or bashert.
Bashert raises many questions, such as the need for prayer. For if all is preordained, why pray to improve your perfectly-planned life? Why argue with someone who wronged you, as that too was God’s will! But most problematic: it contradicts God’s system of Reward and Punishment. Free will is a fundamental truth, and the choices we make are not controlled by anything but ourselves. Maimonides writes (Hilchos Teshuva 5:1):
Behold, this species, man, stands alone in the world, and there is no other kind like him, as regards this subject of being able of his own accord, by his reason and thought, to know the good and the evil, and to do whatever his inclination dictates him with none to stay his hand from either doing good or evil…
Therefore we will earn punishment for our sins, and reward for our merits. All is not bashert, preordained. Otherwise, we are not the cause and cannot be rewarded or punished.
Maimonides discusses this (Guide, book III, chap. xviii):
The relation of Divine Providence is therefore not the same to all men; the greater the human perfection a person has attained, the greater the benefit he derives from Divine Providence. This benefit is very great in the case of prophets, and varies according to the degree of their prophetic faculty; as it varies in the case of pious and good men according to their piety and uprightness. For it is the intensity of the Divine intellectual influence that has inspired the prophets, guided the good in their actions, and perfected the wisdom of the pious. In the same proportion as ignorant and disobedient persons are deficient in that Divine influence, their condition is inferior, and their rank equal to that of irrational beings; and they are “like unto the beasts” (with no providence whatsoever, as beasts have no free will and therefore merit through which God might favor one over another).
“He Will keep the feet of his saints, and the wicked shall be silent in darkness: for by strength shall no man prevail” (1 Sam. ii. 9). When we see that some men escape plagues and mishaps, whilst others perish by them, we must not attribute this to a difference in the properties of their bodies, or in their physical constitution, “for by strength shall no man prevail,” but it must be attributed to their different degrees of perfection, some approaching God, whilst others moving away from Him. Those who approach Him are best protected, and “He will keep the feet of his saints.” But those who keep far away from Him are left exposed to what may befall them; there is nothing that could protect them from what might happen; they are like those who walk in darkness, and are certain to stumble. The protection of the pious by Providence is also expressed in the following passages: “He keepeth all his bones” etc. (Ps. xxxiv. 21); “The eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous” (ibid. ver. 16); “He shall call upon me and I shall answer him” (ibid. xci. 15). There are in Scripture many more passages expressing the principle that men enjoy Divine protection in proportion to their perfection and piety. The philosophers have likewise discussed this subject.
Maimonides is clear: At one extreme, God fully protects the righteous. And at the other extreme, God is unrelated to sinners, and there are varying degrees in between. But bashert is not true, that all people at all times receive God’s providence.
How then did Joseph tell his brothers (Gen. 45:5) that they did not sell him, but that it was God’s plan? Here, it was in fact God’s plan, as Joseph realized after witnessing Pharaoh’s prophetic dreams, and Joseph “ended up” close to Pharaoh to provide dream interpretation and save all from famine. Joseph witnessed divine providence. But Joseph could not deny his brothers’ free will sin of not showing him mercy. Here, Joseph expressed his amazing perfection, that he valued God’s plan over his brothers’ imperfection. By telling his brothers fearing Joseph’s revenge, “it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you,” Joseph told his brothers that he does not follow petty emotions, but sees the greater picture, and he values that alone. He told them he will not retaliate because in the end, it was a good thing that he was in Egypt. His brothers sinned, but he would not take revenge. But most cases are not like this; God is not guiding events. Even here, God did not interfere with the brothers’ free choices.
Another perfection is how the righteous relate to misfortunes, as did King David, when he said, “God told him [Shimi ben Gera] to curse me” (II Sam. 16:10). As King David cannot know God’s thoughts, this means King David used that event for his perfection “as if” God willed it (Radak). Meaning, as God decreed all men to have free will, and at times some men will use it to curse others, King David operated based on that reality, and appreciated God's decree of free will—not that he felt God coerced Shimi curse him. King David always saw God behind the scenes of all events. His attachment to this ultimate reality (God) allowed him to care less about uncomfortable events. King David said, “Perhaps God will look upon my punishment [Shimi’s curse] and recompense me for the abuse he has uttered today.” Meaning, King David felt that being humbled by the curse enabled him an opportunity to perfect himself…not that God is providing some reward. Perhaps King David had some area of his personality that verbal abuse could awaken some self-reflection, and ultimately, improvement. This is the recompense to which King David refers. He recompenses himself through refining his character.
In summary, bashert is a false human fantasy. Torah and our sages do not endorse bashert. Events occur due to either human free choice, chance/nature, and for righteous people, God’s intervention. But to say all is bashert is without evidence, and is generated from our emotions, not our reason. We must also unravel lessons regarding Joseph, King David and others…Torah is not a simple read. But when we arrive at Torah’s true underlying lessons, they are perfectly reasonable and “pleasant in all their ways” (Prov. 3:17).