Friday, January 4, 2008

Derashah: Vaera 5768: Nature, Nurture and Free Will

An old Time Magazine article on identical twins reported on the case of twins Jim Lewis and Jim Springer, who were separated in 1940 when they were four weeks old. They grew up 45 miles apart. When they were reunited in 1979, they discovered that both drove the same model blue Chevrolet, chain-smoked Salem cigarettes, chewed their fingernails, vacationed at the same 3-block strip of beach in Florida and owned dogs named Toy.

This is incredible! You realize what this means! It means that people who own dogs named Toy are likely to drive the same car, prefer the same cigarette, chew their fingernails and be identical twins! Amazing!

Sorry, it’s the writers’ strike; I have to do my own jokes.

More seriously, that story of the “Jim twins” illustrates the power of Nature: Our natural traits determine the path of our lives.

Judaism has always given space to the idea that Nature determines many of our decisions. The Gemara (Niddah 16b) says that before we are born, a malach brings our blastula before HaShem, and our intellect and our physical abilities are determined for us.

However, Nature and even our ethical Free Will are not the entire Jewish picture - Nurture is the third ingredient, informing Free Will and potentially overriding Nature. Our parshah provides an ideal illustration.

In delineating the lineage of Moshe and Aharon, the Torah mentions that Aharon’s wife, Elisheva, had a brother Nachshon ben Aminadav. The gemara (Bava Batra 110a) was troubled by Nachshon’s inclusion; Nachshon would later become the head of the tribe of Yehudah, but the Torah doesn’t usually note people’s siblings unless they are relevant to the story at hand!

The Gemara explains that Nachshon is relevant to the marriage of Aharon and Elisheva. Aharon looked at Elisheva’s brother, Nachshon, when planning to marry her, because, “רוב בנים דומין לאחי האם,” “Most sons resemble their mother’s brothers.” Aharon expected that Elisheva would reproduce the home she had known as a child, and so her sons would turn out like her brothers.
In fact, this did happen. Nachshon, Elisheva’s brother, was an impetuous leader; the midrash credits Nachshon as the first to enter the Yam Suf. When the nation was afraid of the water, Nachshon jumped in and marched forward.

Now look at Elisheva’s sons. Two of them, Nadav and Avihu, jumped in first to bring personal offerings when the Mishkan was dedicated. Their impetuous character worked against them, since their offering was a mistake, but it clearly matched the seize-the-initiative character of their uncle Nachshon.

The Torah presents many examples of this. Yaakov’s uncle was Lavan, and in a few instances he showed the same traits as his uncle, although he used them in more positive ways. Yishmael had the characteristics of his mother Hagar’s Egyptian kin.

Our Nurturing shapes the next generation. Nurture owns no guarantees, of course, but the potency is there.

But there’s more: Our great potency generates our great responsibility. Because our Nurturing influence is capable of shaping the next generation, we are obligated to use it to produce a righteous world.

That responsibility is illustrated by the Torah’s very first mitzvah, Pru Urvu, multiplying and filling the earth. This is not simply a mitzvah of procreation; rather, as the Sefer haChinuch explains, it’s כדי שיהיה העולם מיושב, that the world should be settled. Breeding is only part of the mitzvah; the complete mitzvah, whether through biological procreation or through raising the biological children of others or through educating the community’s children, is to nurture the next generation to become good Jews and good citizens.

Part of this is a Jewish obligation, to nurture Jewish citizens. We say in Ashrei, דור לדור ישבח מעשיך, each generation will praise HaShem’s deeds. Radak explains, “יספר זה הדור שהולך, טרם לכת, לדור אחר המעשים הנוראים שראו בימיהם... לפי שישבחוהו הדור הבא, The older generation must inform the next generation of the amazing things they saw in their day, so that the next generation will also praise HaShem.”

This means that our homes and communities must convey spiritual values to our children. It means that the children of our community must see the adults learn, must see the adults daven, must see that the adults take their religion seriously. If a child comes up from Youth groups in time for Anim Zemiros and sees the men taking off their tallitot and the women chatting with their neighbors, what kind of message does she receive? What kind of nurturing is going on?

And part of this is a secular obligation, to nurture contributing citizens. יישוב הארץ, the settling of the world, is not only about Torah and Mitzvos and furthering the Jewish people. Rather, as the Gemara defines יישוב הארץ, it’s about providing a service which in some way contributes to civilized life. Whether that service means manufacturing cars or teaching Torah or treating patients or selling widgets, we can raise the next generation with the selfless orientation that will encourage them to contribute to the world around them.

This means that our homes and communities must convey social values to our children, it means that the children of our community must see adults engaged in communal life and in the greater world, with seriousness and without cynicism. If children hear us talking about politics or about working with constant negativity and a sense of resigned bitterness instead of positive commitment, what kind of message does he receive? What kind of nurturing is going on?

We can nurture our children to be strong Jews of דור לדור ישבח מעשיך and strong citizens contributing to יישוב העולם. It takes modeling and education and reinforcement, and it takes a positive atmosphere, without anger and rancor. It takes an Elisheva and Aharon, as we saw in our parshah.

The last prophet in Tanach, Malachi, uses his last pesukim to promise that HaShem will send us Eliyahu haNavi, the herald of Mashiach, and והשיב לב אבות על בנים ולב בנים על אבותם, HaShem will return the hearts of parents to their children and children to their parents.

We often emphasize the second half of that passage, noting that in the time of Mashiach children will return to their parents with love and respect - but in order to get there, we need to first fulfill the first half of the sentence. והשיב לב אבות על בנים, we must restore the parent generation to its children, and make sure that we Nurture those children properly, as Jewish citizens and as Contributing citizens. Then we will merit the יום ה' הגדול והנורא, that great day of HaShem.

Additional thoughts:
1. See also Wondertime, Nov 2007, Darwin's 18-Wheeler" by Mark Cherrington, on the power of Nature's influence in primate gender identity.

2. Re: Nature's influence, see also Tzidkat haTzaddik #130 on changing one’s basic nature.

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