Susan, a new acquaintance, told me her surprising story. She decided to enter a raffle. “Why not? The money goes to a good cause,” she thought. The first prize was a trip to Israel. Susan was certain that she wouldn’t win and soon forgot about the whole thing. Of course, she won the trip, but the story doesn’t end there.

While seated on the plane awaiting take-off, the passenger beside her asked if she would switch seats. Susan said, “Of course,” but immediately wondered to herself, “Why did I just give up my aisle seat to sit in the middle?” She had no idea that this quick decision would bring about a positive change in her life. She could not have imagined that she was now sitting between her future husband and future sister-in-law.

How do some occurrences seem to connect? To what extent do Divine providencefree choice—and cause-and-effect intersect? Or do they?

While these are deep and complex questions, the unusual wording of a verse in this week’s Torah portion sheds just a little bit of light on this fascinating topic. “When you build a new house, you must make a guardrail (makeh) for your roof, so that the one who is falling will not come to fall from it (emphasis added).”1

What does “the one who is falling” mean? Is the Torah warning us of a future event? The Talmud explains that “the person who will fall was predestined to fall since the six days of creation.”2 That’s why the verse refers to him as “the one who is falling.”

What roles do Divine Providence and free will play in this scenario? Freedom of choice and causality are two systems by which the world operates.3 The connection between them is explained in the Talmud: “Reward is brought about through those with merit, and punishment through the guilty.”4

In other words, an individual’s act of free will can bring about a pre-ordained result or goal.5 In this situation, it is the free will of the homeowner who is negligent in erecting a guardrail that will lead to the punishment of the person who was predestined to fall.

Consider this example. You land a dream job starting in a month. You’ve got it all planned out. You’ll give your current boss the required two weeks’ notice, then take two weeks off before the mandatory start date for your new job. But that night you end up in the ER with a painful kidney stone. The X-ray shows a mass and further testing reveals that you have Stage 1 kidney cancer. That’s the bad news. The good news is that because it was discovered early, it can be removed safely and you won’t need any further treatment. That painful kidney stone actually saved you. However, due to the six-week recovery period, you lose out on the new job. But on the day you were scheduled to have started that new job, your “former” boss calls and offers you a promotion at an even higher salary. Thank G‑d!

Freedom of choice and causality work in tandem with Divine providence to bring G‑d’s plans to fruition. A goal can be achieved in different ways. G‑d’s desired end can be brought about through any of a variety of means. If a goal is not attained by one means, it will come about by another, but these distinctions may not be obvious to us.6

The Talmud’s statement that “reward is brought about through those with merit, and punishment through the guilty,” might help us understand this. A person’s act of free will can be the means to trigger a particular, pre-ordained, occurrence or goal. It may result in either a reward or a punishment. The free will of the homeowner who neglected to erect a guardrail ultimately brought about the punishment of the person who was predestined to fall. Rashi succinctly concludes that if someone falls off a roof, it’s because (s)he was a “fallen one,” deserving to fall. It is your duty and choice, however, to make sure that it’s not your roof.

The Torah neither tells people to forego building houses nor forbids going on the roof. The commandment is simply to build a guardrail. The performance of a straightforward, common-sense mitzvah can prevent potential harm. Therefore, imagine the potential good that can result from going beyond one’s comfort zone to help another.

Just ask my friend Susan!

Making It Relevant

  1. In retrospect, how have specific occurrences and choices you have made coincided with surprising outcomes?
  2. Strive to see G‑d’s providence in your life.
  3. Establish clear boundaries (“guardrails”) for yourself to ensure your physical and spiritual safety.
  4. Don’t be afraid to go beyond your comfort zone to help another. You never know what good might result from it.