Monday, May 25, 2009

"Working" on an Essay

So, I'm "working" on an essay for English (yes, it's due tomorrow and I didn't start yet), and I came across something that I had to share. The essay is focused on death (a topic that is really macabre). One of the pieces is "The Appointment in Samarra" (as retold by W. S Maugham), and it is actually quite interesting. I've copied the text here for your perusal:

The speaker is Death

There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threating getsture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

When I read this, I was thinking in terms of fate, Yonah running away from Hashem, and other things like that. Because I have absolutely no idea what to write about in this essay, I decided to do a little research on the piece. This is an excerpt from something I found in a totally non-Jewish source:

A common interpretation of the story, of course, is that humans cannot escape their ultimate destiny. But there is a more profound, nuanced question, one illustrated by the two Iraqis who told the Marines where to find the prisoners: who if anyone bears moral responsibility for initiating a chain of events, especially a chain that is potentially fatal?

In Maugham's tale, the chain of events begins with the servant's interpretation (or misinterpretation) of Death's stare. He sees it as threatening rather than as surprise, and concludes that to escape Death he must escape Baghdad. What he does not know is that his decision, for which he is entirely responsible and which will prove both fateful and fatal, is taking him to the very place where he will meet, not accidentally encounter, Death.

Like the servant, every individual interprets the world and makes decisions, one or more of which are fateful - that is, of such momentous import that it opens entirely new and possibly unexpected (as well as completely unintended) consequences. And because decisions are always made by the individual (just as Death comes individually even when many die at the same time and place), no competent person can escape responsibility for the ramifications of his or her decisions.

When I read this, I thought something along the lines of "wow, how was a goy able to explain the concept of bechira so well?" Bechira is so hard to explain, but here it is so clear. We make decisions all the time, affecting the future. But even our attempts to get away from what is preordained have already been foreseen. It explains further how we can be held accountable for our actions and why we can't use the excuse of Hashem's omniscience to get out of the onesh. Yes, the end is foreseen, but it is our choices that get us there.

I hope that I didn't just waste your time and that this actually made some sense. I just wanted to share the beautiful thought I had while (not) working on my english assignment.


JVC said...

There's a gemara (Sukkah) that tells a very similar story. I'll paraphrase (from memory, so I apologize for any inaccuracy):
Shlomo HaMelech saw the Angel of Death one day and saw that he was in a bad mood. Shlomo inquired as to why this was so and the Malach told Shlomo of two targets that were making his mission very difficult. Shlomo knew the two men, who worked for him as scribes, and he had them transported to the town of Luz, where people lived very long lives, in order to save them.
The next day, surprisingly, Shlomo saw that the Malach HaMaves was in a good mood. "My mission was to kill the two at the gate of Luz."

itsagift said...

Wow, that is really profound. It's amazing how you explained it all so well.
Thanks for the good read!

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