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Playing the Odds

This week’s parasha teaches us that in matters of life and death, it’s best to just close our eyes, roll the dice, and trust in blind luck

Liel Leibovitz
April 15, 2011
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The real heroes of this week’s parasha are a pair of goats. As the Israelites prepare for their Day of Atonement, God instructs his chosen people to sacrifice one goat and dispatch the other one into the wilderness as the symbolic carrier of the nation’s sins. How might we decide which goat gets the knife and which a long trip to the desert? God commands us to cast lots.

It’s a simple solution, but also one that is deeply problematic. The lot and the Lord are, by definition almost, diametrically opposed: the one an emblem of random progression, the other the omnipotent creator of all things. The Lord, presumably, does not have accidents, nor does he leave any room for chance. He does not—to quote a clever man—play dice with the universe. Why, then, should we? Why wouldn’t the Almighty merely declare which animal is destined to which fate, and spare us these unnerving games of chance? How might we be expected to reconcile our faith in the divine and his heavenly plan with such a blatant resort to the random and the arbitrary? And on the holiest day of the year, no less?

These are searing questions, and they resonate throughout the Bible. When they finally reach the land of Canaan, for example, the Israelites divide the land by drawing lots, and they draw lots again in Masada, selecting the few unfortunate swordsmen entrusted with setting the mass suicide in motion. We Jews aren’t alone in trusting chance: John Wesley, the father of Methodism, selected a wife by drawing lots, and the Dalai Lama used the same method to nominate his successor. Throughout time and across cultures, we again and again see the very religious turn to blind luck.

It’s a view, of course, that the very religious would very likely reject. What we perceive of as random, they may say, is but another manifestation of God’s will, unknown to us but in effect nonetheless. The woman he selected at random, Wesley was sure, was the one God intended him to marry all along. But such an attitude, and its problematic implications on the nature of free will, is one most of us reject; to us, God and chance are antithetical.

And yet, when it comes to the most meaningful questions, we frequently associate the random with the divine; when our lives depend on it, we draw lots.

In his brilliant Dicing With Death, medical statistician Stephen Senn discusses the intersections of chance, risk, and healthcare. Seeing how so many of our clinical trials, for example, are randomized, we might raise severe ethical objections to a doctor’s decision to knowingly withhold treatment from a group of patients on the basis of nothing more than a form of lottery.

“The argument,” Senn writes, “goes like this. Even if we accept that from the purely scientific point of view it might be preferable to continue to randomize patients concurrently to experimental and standard treatments, having started in equipoise, it is highly likely that a point will be reached where we have a hunch that one treatment is better than another. Once we have reached this point, if we continue to randomize, we are sacrificing the interests of current patients to those of future patients. This is to treat patients as means and not ends and is unethical.”

Ethics, however, has yet to come up with a better alternative. Nor has the law: In 1841, to cite but one renowned example, an American ship named The William Brown sank along with 31 of the men and women on board. The rest of the passengers made it onto a lifeboat, which grew more and more crowded. To ease the load and increase the overall potential of survival, the crew selected 16 passengers at random and shoved them overboard. Horrified, some of the passengers who did eventually reach shore rushed to file a complaint against the crew. One sailor, Alexander Holmes, was apprehended, and—being the only crew member present in Philadelphia, where the complaint was filed—charged with murder.

In deciding the case, the court found that “being common carriers, and so paid to protect and carry the passengers, the seamen, beyond the number necessary to navigate the boat, in no circumstances can claim exemption from the common lot of the passengers.” Holmes was convicted of manslaughter, but the court did see fit to make a statement regarding the sterling nature of random selection.

“When the ship is in no danger of sinking,” the judges wrote, “but all sustenance is exhausted, and a sacrifice of one person is necessary to appease the hunger of others, the selection is by lot. This mode is resorted to as the fairest mode, and, in some sort, as an appeal to God, for selection of the victim. … For ourselves, we can conceive of no mode so consonant both to humanity and to justice.”

The reference to God is not accidental. In random clinical trials and in harrowing decisions aboard sinking ships we see, again and again, the same logic guiding this week’s parasha. The haphazard and the holy are intertwined in our minds because, short of understanding God and his ways, and short of possessing his power to shape events, we have yet to devise a more formidable system than closing our eyes and rolling the dice and telling ourselves that the outcome, far from some cruel twist of fate, might very well be the direction some heavenly hand has been guiding us toward all along.

Even if we don’t accept this principle, even if we look at games of chance as immoral or terrifying or both, we should, at the very least, come to terms with the inarguable truth that chance consists of equal parts hope and dread. Benjamin Franklin understood that well. “I enquired concerning Moravian marriages,” he wrote in his autobiography, “whether the report was true that they were by lot. I was told that lots were used only in particular cases … if, for example, it should happen that two or three young women were found to be equally proper for the young man, the lot was then recurred to. I objected, ‘If the matches are not made by the mutual choice of the parties, some of them may chance to be very unhappy.’ ‘And so they may’ answered my informer ‘if you let the parties decide for themselves.’ Which indeed I could not deny.” Amen to that.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is Editor at Large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.