One of the oldest debates in the history of psychology is nature versus nurture – whether we inherit ancestral personality traits; or whether learning environment and experience shape our identity.
As with almost all such questions, the answer is not binary and lies somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.
When the Torah begins the next chapter of our ancestral history, it tells us exactly where we 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 of Padan-Aram, sister of Laban the Aramean, to be his wife. (25:20)
At this point, the Torah has only just introduced us to the kindly Rivka, and Eliezer has only just brought her back to Avraham; so why does the Torah specify in such painstaking detail who her family members are?
Rashi notes this peculiarity and suggests that the Torah is contrasting her kind heart with the environment of her upbringing as praise that she resisted their influence.
R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that as much as the famous adage in Avos cautions us about the powerful influence of neighbors and environment on our personalities; in Rivka, we see the power of an individual to transcend their origins.
It’s a key theme of this story – we can contrast Rivka, growing up in a negative environment yet retaining her kind spirit; to Esau, growing up in the in the most righteous and moral home in the world – guided by no less than Rivka herself! Instead of becoming a full working partner in Avraham’s covenant, he loses his way entirely.
R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that where we come from does not have to define where we are going; we always have the choice.
We must not simplistically shirk our duties by blaming peer pressure and environments for our choices; as influential as defaults settings are, we can still choose to be different all the same.
The surest way to forfeit free will is to believe you have no choice.