Our choices lead us down path toward blessings — or curses

By Rabbi Josef Davidson

A relatively new film shows triplets separated at birth as part of an experiment that was designed to discover whether it is nature or nurture that determines who each individual is to become. 

While the ethics of such an experiment are certainly questionable at best, the answers not only are of interest to a scientist but also to those who are interested in the notion of free will. 

If every action is genetically motivated, then what role, if any, does choice play in making decisions? Is free will only an illusion? Or do human beings have the capacity to make choices despite their genetics? Does environment predispose human beings to limited choices? Are they able to act only within the boundaries of their upbringing?

The message of this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, is clearly in favor of free will. It opens with the declaration that there are two paths that each may take. One is the path of blessing, and the other is that of curse. One of the primary focuses of Torah in general and of this parashah in particular is to provide the instruction necessary to make the choice that leads to blessing and to reject the one that leads to curse. However, the choice between those two paths is entirely in the hands of each individual.

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Two mountains are mentioned in this week’s portion as if to foreshadow a dramatic ceremony that will bring home to the Israelites and, by extension, to the reader, the gravity of those choices. 

Mount Gerizim faces Mount Eval across the valley of Shechem, modern Nablus. Gerizim, on the southern side, presents a lush, green face; Eval, on the north, presents a rocky, barren face. 

Both presumably have the same environment, and yet there could not be a starker contrast between the two. Half of the tribes of Israel were to ascend Gerizim and pronounce the choices that would lead to blessings, to which the other half which had ascended Eval would respond, “Amen.” Then the tribes on Eval would pronounce the choices that would lead to curses, to which the group on Gerizim would answer, “Amen.”

So  the two mountains share the same “genetics” and the same environment and yet differ dramatically in what is able to grow on each. This demonstration was intended to answer the question posed at the top about nature versus nurture. The answer is both and neither. In the end the choices that each individual makes are his/her own alone. 

One sees this phenomenon in large families. Each person born into the family comes from the same gene pool and is the beneficiary of nearly the same nurturing and environment.  Yet each of the siblings is decidedly his/her own person. Each makes his/her own choices that enhance or thwart his/her genetics and his/her upbringing. Free will is the agent that oversees both nature and nurture. 

While one may not be able to do anything about a number of genetic factors, such as skin, hair and eye color, one can make choices that may offset a genetic predisposition to heart disease or diabetes through lifestyle choices. While a person may be raised in an undesirable environment, one can make choices to change that environment for him/herself and the next generation. 

The Torah portion begins: “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse.” In a few weeks, that Torah portion will exhort the reader to “choose life and blessing.” 

Everyone can be the lush, green mountain — by making good choices!

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Josef A. Davidson is affiliated with Congregation B’nai Amoona and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.