One of the oldest debates in the history of psychology is nature versus nurture. Nature is what people think of as pre-wiring and is influenced by genetic inheritance of ancestral personality traits and other biological predispositions; nurture is generally taken as the influence of external environmental factors and learned experience. As with most such questions, the answer is probably non-binary and lies somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.
When the Torah begins the story of the adult Yitzchak’s family, the next chapter of our ancestral history, the Torah specifies in explicit detail where his wife Rivka came from:
וַיְהִי יִצְחָק, בֶּן-אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה, בְּקַחְתּוֹ אֶת-רִבְקָה בַּת-בְּתוּאֵל הָאֲרַמִּי, מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם–אֲחוֹת לָבָן הָאֲרַמִּי, לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה – Yitzchak was forty years old when he took Rivka – daughter of Besuel the Aramean from Padan-Aram, sister of Lavan the Aramean – to be his wife. (25:20)
The thing is, the Torah has literally only just introduced us to the kindly Rivka a few lines up! Eliezer has only just encountered her and brought her to Avraham and Yitzchak’s home, and nothing else has happened. We know exactly who Rivka is! Why does the Torah restate who her family was and where she came from?
Rashi notes this peculiarity and suggests that the Torah is contrasting her gentle, kind, and warm heart with the callous selfishness and greed of the environment she grew up in, illustrating with praise that she resisted their influence so completely to the extent that she fully earned a place in Avraham’s famously open home.
R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that as much as the famous adage in Pirkei Avos gives a cautious warning about the powerful influence on our personalities of bad neighbors and a poor environment, Rivka clearly and unequivocally demonstrates the power of an individual to transcend adverse circumstances and surroundings.
We can contrast Rivka, who grows up in an environment with bad people and negative influences, yet retains her generous and kind spirit – with Esau, who grows up in a home with not just Yitzchak and Yakov, but under the guidance of no less than Rivka herself! Yet instead of Esau becoming a full working partner in Avraham’s covenant, as his father had hoped, he lost his way entirely. It’s actually a key theme in each generation of these chapters of our ancestral history; Avraham can resist a cruel and pagan society, and Yakov can resist Lavan’s conniving ways.
Where we come from does not need to define where we are going; it’s not exclusively down to nature nor nurture. It doesn’t have to be definitive and exhaustive; we can always change our direction, all we have to do is make that choice, and it cuts both ways! Rivka could ignore the bad influences in her life and become a wonderful human, and Esau could ignore the good influences in his life and lose his way.
Claiming nature versus nurture is a simplistic copout to avoid taking responsibility and shirk a duty by blaming instinctive behavior or cultural environment and peer pressure. At the end of the day, our choices and our lives are ours, and ours alone. At best, we can say that nature and nurture combine to provide us with default or factory settings, our starting point. But the trajectory of your life isn’t defined by the hand you’re dealt – it’s about how you play the hand.
The surest way to forfeit your free will is to doubt that you have a choice.