As a rabbi, I have often been asked questions relating to destiny versus free will. Can we change our destiny by exercising our free will? It is a complicated question and, from a theological perspective, not easily answered. It seems, however, that Judaism has an approach to looking at the problem. Let me explain. I have been involved in cases where congregants have someone in their family facing death. One traditional response to such a dire situation is to change the name of the person in a life-threatening situation. By doing so, we create an alternative ending, namely, life instead of death. I asked one of my Torah teachers how this works, and this is what he told me.
In the divine scheme of things, John Doe is destined to die at a certain time. However, John and his friends and relatives want him to live. Therefore, they change his name to John Raphael (Raphael means “God heals” in Hebrew), to change his fate. No longer is he John Doe. He is now John Raphael Doe, a new man with a new name and, hence, a different destiny. Obviously, it is not a failsafe ritual. Only God is in charge of life and death matters, but there is a suggestion that free will can intervene to change one’s destiny. This is the premise of The Adjustment Bureau, a romantic thriller with a clever take on destiny versus free choice in the choice of a marriage partner.
Congressman David Norris, a Brooklyn Congressman running for the New York Senate in 2006, loses the race, but in the process meets Elise Sellas, who captures his attention and imagination. She gives him her phone number but he loses it, and for three years afterwards he tries to find her. Meanwhile, he launches his campaign for the 2010 Senate race. Then he serendipitously discovers her as she is walking along a downtown street, and emotion takes over.
But fate again intervenes through a group of men in suits known as the Adjustment Bureau. They confront David and inform him that his destiny to not to pursue a relationship with Elise according to the plans of the “chairman,” a person whose identity is ambiguous. They warn him that failure to abide by their suggestion or revealing the existence of the Adjustment Bureau will result in catastrophic consequences.
David resists their threats, deciding he has a right to choose his own destiny. He, therefore, continues pursuing Elise with whom he feels a natural rapport. The narrative details his attempts to connect with her in the face of obstacles placed in their way by the supernatural Adjustment Bureau, an entity which has the power to change the respective schedules of David and Elise, such as the time and places of their rendezvous, to prevent them from meeting.
Because of David’s erratic behavior and mysterious absences, Elise feels that the relationship is doomed and so she accepts a marriage proposal from an ex-boyfriend. When David hears of this, he is determined to intervene. Desperate to marry her, he frantically contacts her and reveals to her the intentions of the Adjustment Bureau. He begs her to trust him and follow him as he tries to elude the Bureau, which is pursuing him in light of his rejection of its pre-ordained plan.
Jewish wisdom clearly states that man has free will. Several times in the Bible, there is a reaffirmation of this notion. The Bible directly commands man to “choose life” because implicitly man has free choice. However, free choice does not mean that we can understand the divine intention or the divine plan. The Ethics of the Fathers openly remarks “Everything is forseen, yet freedom of choice is given.” The Adjustment Bureau reminds us that even though destiny plays a role in our lives, it is not the final arbiter.