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Nothing is Random: Ethics of the Fathers, 4:3

Nothing is Random: Ethics of the Fathers, 4:3

Thor Heyerdahl, Rosa Parks and Ben Azzai's great lesson.


[Ben Azzai] used to say: Do not scorn any person and do not disdain any thing; for there is no person who does not have his hour, and there is no thing that does not have its place.

Ethics of the Fathers, 4:3

One doesn't often find civil rights heroine Rosa Parks and Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl mentioned in the same breath. However, had Ben Azzai known of them, he might have made referenced both as examples of the principle he teaches in our mishna.

In 1947, Thor Heyerdahl set off from the western coast of South America in a primitive balsa raft and sailed 4,300 miles across the Pacific Ocean to Polynesia, thereby demonstrating how primitive travelers might have made such a journey long ago. 22 years later, Heyerdahl attempted to cross the Atlantic in a papyrus reed boat modeled after ancient Egyptian drawings. He successfully sailed from Morocco to Barbados on his second try. But it is his failed first attempt that has relevance to our mishna.

Heyerdahl's papyrus boat was banana-shaped, long and narrow with a tail the curled up and pointed back toward the prow. A taut line connected the tip of the tail with the central part of the boat.

The natives who helped construct the boat convinced Heyerdahl to remove the line, which had been attached according to the ancient sketches but which appeared to serve no purpose. Heyerdahl set sail in his papyrus craft, which began taking on water mid-journey and ultimately sank.

One strand of cord, apparently without purpose, made all the difference between a seaworthy vessel and a sunken ship.

Although the little boat kept its shape before it set sail, once in the water the papyrus reeds began to soften and the heavy tail section began to sag. The line that ran from the back of the boat to its center, although seemingly without purpose, was in fact essential to the seaworthiness of the craft. By keeping tension on the back of the boat, the line prevented the sagging that doomed Heyerdahl's first attempt. He replaced the line for his second try and successfully crossed the Atlantic.

One strand of cord, apparently without purpose, made all the difference between a seaworthy vessel and a sunken ship, between success and failure, and perhaps, for some ancient traveler, between life and death.


Although anthropologists still debate whether Thor Heyerdahl's voyages produced any significant contribution to his field, no one debates the cultural contribution of Rosa Parks. On December 1, 1955, the 42-year-old department store worker found no empty seats in the "colored section" at the back of a city bus and took a seat farther forward. When the bus driver ordered her to give up her seat, Ms. Parks refused.

This was not the first such act of civil disobedience in response to southern segregation. But after the murders of George Lee, Lamar Smith, and Emmett Till earlier that year, the black community of Montgomery, Alabama, was ready to catch fire, and the arrest of Rosa Parks was the spark necessary to ignite them into action. The Montgomery Bus Boycott became the catalyst giving rise to the modern civil rights movement, bringing an end to segregation and gradually changing racism from an accepted and acceptable attitude to social anathema.

One ordinary woman, by quietly yet firmly asserting her right to simple human dignity at precisely the right moment in time, dramatically and profoundly changed the world.

In the same way, no matter how much less dramatic or how much more mundane, every thing and every person has a role to play and a time upon the stage of history that is integral to the Almighty's master plan.


Ben Azzai's lesson, however, contains a darker warning. Just as we should never dismiss any person or any thing as lacking in value or having no purpose, neither should we assume that any thing or any person is completely benign.

If we understand that the Creator placed all of us in this world to strive toward the fulfillment of our individual potentials, then we understand as well that we will encounter obstacles placed in our paths against which we will have to contend and over which we will be challenged to prevail. Lust and jealousy will tempt us to indulge our passions, wealth and power will urge us to exploit our fellow men, and wicked individuals will seek to do us harm. But never should we interpret life's trials and tribulations as evidence that God is not in control; rather, each and every challenge testifies to the prime axiom of Free Will that is the foundation of the human condition.

Consequently, teaches Ben Azzai, every one of us is charged with a monumental responsibility as we travel through life. On the one hand, we are obligated to recognize that the Almighty has designed and designated every person and every thing to make a unique contribution to the plan of creation. On the other hand, we must guard ourselves against potential hazards along the way, whether they take the form of challenges placed in our path to make us stronger or of people who, by straying from their own true purpose, may pose a threat to our physical or spiritual well-being.

Herein lies the great balancing act that defines mankind's purpose in the world. Turn away from evil and do good, says the Psalmist. Seek harmony and pursue it. Nothing is random, everything is part of the plan, and it is our choices and our ability to discern between good and evil that will determine to what extent we bring the world, and ourselves, closer to perfection.

March 14, 2009

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Visitor Comments: 6

(6) Anonymous, March 23, 2009 2:22 PM

The right time, the right place..

The dynamics of these stories are awesome as is the perseverence and outcomes...The world to dome must welcome thes people, and we, the world that has arrived welcome their accomplishments and reap their benefit..!!

(5) Ronnie Y. Fredman, March 22, 2009 4:54 PM

the random purposefulness to life

or the indeterministic determinism to life: Yesterday is gone, tomorrow is yet to be, and 95% of what I worry about never happens, ergo, my worrying is an efficient cause in the universe. Thus could J. Swift argue with an ironic twist in his eyebrow. Yet, I am certain: a) that there is a power greater than me, that I am not G-d , b) though I will not hold in disdain the belief of a World To Come, that Justice may be measured out in that World, or that our perfecting souls may travel from one generation to be born into another, still, I must insist, that the plans of God, this power I am not, will be to the good/Good! The Good of which my prayer would by His graciousness I may have discernment, and, c) finally, each and every event, thing, photon, wave, or particle has a purpose and a meaning in this world of Faith. So, a person, place, thing, or event which may seem to be random, inconsequential, indeterministic is, from the perspective of Faith, not only full of meaning, but full of direction and purpose. Van Leeuwenhoek, the father of microbiology, was the first (in our common record) to describe single celled organisms. Similarly, we wait to perceive the universe of Faith and its consequences. Yet, it is like we are putting together a jigsaw puzzle of many pieces with infinite shapes: to describe one white snowflake on a whiter snow drift in a blinding blizzard. If all the pieces look the same, how can we? But if each piece is associated with a different sound, and, when two pieces come together we hear a harmonizing, when a subset of the whole comes together, we hear a few lines of ethereal music, and so one. But, when we hear those around us say, "They all look alike to us..." We become stupefied. I ramble a bit. What seems random to some, is a complete destiny for another. Thus, each piece seeks its appropriate spot. What some would wilfully accomplish, others would see God's will. What would have happened if there had been an empty seat in the back for Rosa? It is amazing that even God, on occasion, must take public transport.

(4) Anonymous, March 22, 2009 4:21 PM

Rosa Parks

most historians are aware that her "defiance" was a carefully arranged "incident". She was picked because she was light-skiined. Also the group had "selected" that particular busdriver to goad & waited until they were both on same bus.. Was not the courageous act of an individual, but a calculated "civil rights action" by the entire group. tho a good one.

(3) ruth housman, March 22, 2009 2:56 PM

the visibility of "non random"

The greatest objection to the statement "nothing is random" has to do with the terrible atrocities that beset our lives, such as The Holocaust and beyond, into everyday life. We are enjoined by this conundrum: meaning, are we puppets and how could it come to pass that God not only allowed this to happen but created this fire? How are we being moved and why? We must confront this issue. The implications are profound. You cannot write "nothing is random" and not expect to be questioned about this profound and mind-bending puzzle. These issues run right through the discussion of determinism and free will and they are unavoidable and will catch every one of us short, and bring us to the WALL, to Jerusalem, to that "Wailing Wall". So YES, my life is telling me, there is nothing random about a life that brought me to this time, in history, because I am recording not a little, but massive astonishment of connects and this does bring me to the WALL, repeatedly. We cannot escape the paradox and we cannot escape the fact, that we must all act with moral imperative no matter how we believe, we must in other words, entertain the belief in the illusion of free will, and YES, there has to be a learning curve within all life, an inbuilt learning curve, because if nothing is random, we are here to learn and this must be a profound journey of soul. It is the rub of the sand within the oyster that creates the pearl. We are rubbing up against each other in myriad ways and I am saying this story, is not complete. We do not see ahead, and to perceive a sentient arrow to evolution, meaning love, is to go to another place, even as we have great difficulty contemplating, as we do, the ineffable mind of God.

(2) buzz alpert, March 22, 2009 1:40 PM

In 1960 when I enlisted in the Marines there only of us from Chicago, me and a young man named Al Jackson. He was black and Christian and I was white and Jewish. Never having been raised with hatred in my home I was astounded by the racial hatred from the mostly southern boys. 3 big tough corn fed farm boys from Mississippi laughed & showed me a letter about guys in their town who took a black youth who said something to a white woman and slit his stomack open and put in there, killed him and floated him down river. These kids looked upon me as a father figure. They were 17 & I was 23. I was an "old man". Sickened by it I told them how wrong it was and they just looked at each other in astonishment. They had never heard such words from the lips of a white man. They did not respond, but they continued to seek me out. A few weeks later they said they were going to scrub AL down with the floor bushes because he wasn''t clean. I told them to stand by and I told Al and said that he could count on me to stand by him. I went back and told them it wasn''t true because I saw him shower evrey night and I would not stand by if they did that. They didn''t do it. It was a powerful lesson to me that sometimes, and I understand that it does not mean all the time, but sometimes one person can make a difference. I have never forgotten that lesson and I have continued to live that feeling, that mindset and the concept that Dr. King once said, "That no man is free until all men are free."I hope I have quoted it correctly.

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