Nature, nurture, and personal choice
I have spent most of my career teaching teenagers. They are trying to figure out who they are, what they think of the world around them, and where they may or may not fit in it. There are many choices confronting them, and they grapple with these choices, sometimes avoiding making them, sometimes making ill-advised ones, sometimes ranting that they don’t really have any choice at all. I tell my students: “You actually have more choice than you want to take responsibility for, and less choice than you think.”
We are each a product of our chromosomes, our cultures, and our choices. Each of these three elements are determinants in our lives and our paths through them. The Torah is, to a large extent, about the choices we make given our chromosomes and the cultures in which we reside; it is our choices, say the commentaries — particularly the rationalists such as Maimonides and Abarbanel — that represent our divinity. To be created b’tzelem Elokim, in the Image of God, is to think, to reason, to consider and to choose. Nachmanides goes so far as to assert that the raison d’etre for the entire narrative from the Creation through the Exodus is to teach us the fundamental truth of choices and consequences, reward and punishment. In this week’s parashah, Chayei Sarah, Rebecca emerges as Isaac’s bat zug, his intended soulmate, his bashert, because of the choices that we see her making.
Chayei Sarah marks the transition from Abraham and Sarah’s story to Isaac and Rebecca’s. The parashah opens with Sarah’s having passed away and Abraham’s purchasing the Cave of Machpelah, from the head of the local Hittite clan, in which to bury her. Afterward, Abraham turns to his long-time senior and loyal servant, the head of his household who “had charge of all he owned,” to find a wife for Isaac. Abraham makes his servant swear to him “that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell, but will go to the land of my birth and take a wife for my son Isaac” (Genesis 24: 3-4). The Hebrew wording is especially striking: Abraham tells Eliezer his servant, “El artzi v’el moladti teileich” — “Go to my native land and my birthplace — replicating the very language used by God at the beginning of Abraham’s journey: “Lech l’cha mei’artzecha, umimoladtecha umibeit avicha” — “Go forth from your native land, from your birthplace and from your father’s home” (Genesis 12:1). God sent Abraham away. Why then does Abraham send Eliezer back, specifically to there, to find a wife for Isaac?
There are many explanations provided by the commentaries as to the differences between the impact that one’s land (eretz), one’s birthplace or heritage (moldedket) and one’s family (beit av) have on a person, and why God commanded Abraham to leave all of that behind him. Malbim, who lived in the 19th century and was very familiar with the twin zeitgeists of nationalism and the Enlightenment, explains as follows: One’s land refers to the geography, topography and climate of the place where he/she lives. These affect one’s outlook, priorities, even vocabulary, and certainly psyche. We know that northern climes have multiple words for snow, how warmer climates yield people who are either happier or more hot-headed, how endless expanses nurture either a sense of adventure (e.g., North America) or fatalism (e.g., Central Asia).
Abraham’s land was the Fertile Crescent — lush and crisscrossed by rivers, bordered by mountains to the east, and opened by the sea to the west. This land begat a heritage of cities, commerce and the legal codes necessary to support them, of cosmopolitanism and incessant activity, and of a focus squarely on the material. It is easy to see the tension between many of the Torah’s values and the mores associated with Mesopotamian society. And while Abraham was from the family of Shem, the moral and blessed son of Noah, and while Terach and Nachor, Abraham’s father and brother, were also en route to Canaan with Abraham, Terach and his other son Nachor chose to remain in Haran.
Both literally and figuratively, they opted for the urbane and the material, with all of the consequences that come with that choice. While money may not be the root of all evil, it certainly underlies much of it. It should not surprise us, therefore, that Lavan, Nachor’s grandson and Rebecca’s brother (and eventual father-in-law of Rebecca and Isaac’s son Jacob), is distilled into a mercenary, self-serving, devious and sly character. For Lavan, money becomes everything; morality and loyalty mean virtually nothing.
God told Abraham to leave the influences of his family and his culture and to go to a land that was incredibly different from the Fertile Crescent: Canaan is rocky and devoid of rivers, plagued by drought, and fairly rural. It was a trading crossroad, but its economy was based on shepherding and smaller scale agriculture. It was a place where Abraham could start over, a place that supported his worldview that welled from faith in an invisible, omnipotent Deity who was both just and merciful, and who wanted those traits to be the foundation of the new religion. Morality, fidelity and kindness, rather than wealth, power and self-service, are what God desires.
Nevertheless, Abraham and Sarah are products of their past, and elements of that past are critical for the nation’s future survival. To survive as a nation, we need to be skilled in commerce but also true to our values of justice, morality and kindness. To survive in exile we need to be adaptable and resilient, able to learn the ways of others and work with them. We may even need to know how and when to bend the truth, hide and subvert in order to ensure our continuity.
Rebecca grew up in Haran — a trading hub, a crossroads of ideas and commerce, where financial success was taken both as a gift from the gods and a sign of their favor. Money was the key to success, stature, and power. In this light, what Rebecca demonstrates when she sees the servant at the well is nothing short of astounding. Not only does she not turn away when approached by a stranger asking for water to drink, she offers, of her own volition, to return to the water well and draw water for his camels as well!
Her choice, extreme kindness, was simple yet profound. (According to scientific calculation, it would have taken some 140 gallons of water to quench the thirst of 10 tired camels!) And afterward, when the servant asks her if there is available lodging in her father’s home, she responds that not only is there a place for him to sleep but also fodder for the camels. There was not a single mention of money or payment — not for the water, not for the labor, neither for the straw nor the lodging — all of which would have been completely acceptable in this case. Yet time after time, opportunity after opportunity, Rebecca chooses kindness and altruism over certain gain. Despite her land, her culture and her family, despite what most would see as accepted and acceptable practice, she chose Abraham and Sarah’s way. And she chose to leave her land, her heritage, and her family to follow the servant to Abraham and Sarah’s land, the one that God showed them, to begin a new life.
At the end of the long journey (and a very long chapter in Genesis!), Rebecca meets Isaac and becomes his wife. “And he loved her, and he was comforted in the aftermath of [the death of] Sarah, his mother.” Like Sarah, Rebecca came from the mercantile, cosmopolitan and wealth-centered world of the Fertile Crescent. Like Sarah, she chose and lived a life very different from those around her. Like Sarah, she would suffer from infertility and hear the voice of God regarding her pregnancy. And like Sarah, her past and present value systems had to be merged for her to make complicated and difficult choices to ensure the continuity of the family.
It is undeniable that we are each a product of our chromosomes and our culture, and in the best of circumstances, both of these serve as strong foundations and support structures. To abrogate our ability to choose is to deny our essential nature as being created in the b’tzelem Elokim. We can always choose, despite our birthplaces, our heritages and our fathers’ homes, to do justice and kindness, at times even choosing — as Rebecca did — what is right and moral over what is commonly accepted, thereby continuing the simple and profound mission laid out for us by God and our biblical forebears.