William Shakespeare used the imagery of the skull of Yorick as a means for Prince Hamlet to wax poetic about the futility of life. While Yorick’s may be the most famous skull in literature, his was not the first skull to inspire philosophical musings. One of the more fascinating and esoteric portion of the Mishna in Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers states: “[Hillel] saw a skull floating on the surface of the water and he said to it: Because you drowned others, they drowned you; and those who drowned you will eventually be drowned” (Pirkei Avot 2:7).

Hillel was not acting as a forensic anthropologist, noting that a skull separated from its body is generally indicative of a less than peaceful death. Nor was he plotting a mystery novel and seeking to uncover what type of unsavory character ends up drowned and beheaded in the river.

If Hillel were simply conveying the fact that violence often begets violence, then his statements would probably not have been included in the Mishna. Rather, Hillel’s musing, as explained by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, is that “even though a murder may be, in fact, an execution of a Divinely ordained death sentence, the murderer is still subject to God’s judgment for his crime. ‘The great Master of the Universe has all things at His service, even folly and crime.’” (Proverbs 26:10).

Even as a murderer seems about to fulfill a Divine plan for another life to end, the murderer still has a choice (free will) not to be the instrument of that murder. Once the murder is committed, even though it was part of a Divine plan, the murderer is culpable for choosing to allow him/herself to be the instrument through which the destiny was fulfilled.

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