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Published by: outdash2 on Nov 19, 2013
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Eisav’s Genes: Nature or
 Nurture
Rabbi Maury Grebenau
The story is told of a young man in Chelm who went to the Rabbi to ask his advice. It
seems that this young man had only a wisp of a beard and it was bothering him. “Rabbi” he  began, “I just can’t understand why I can’t grow a beard. You know my father’s long thick  beard. I just don’t know what to make of it.” “My dear boy” exclaimed the Rabbi, “you clearly take after your mother!”. Perhaps is not just our physical characteristics which may be related to
 our genes but also our moral compass. I recently heard Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler speak about this very idea, the topic of genes and morality. He brought up the fact that increasingly we are told that cutting edge research seems to indicate that genes seem t
o tell us about a person’s moral inclination. H
ow likely someone is to be faithful or even to commit violent crimes can be found in their genes. If so, he asked, how can we blame Eisav for his life? Was he not a ruddy, hairy hunter-child right from the womb? Rabbi Tendler pointed to the Gemara (Shabbos 156a) which after explaining that ones tendencies are related to the time of year when they are born tells us that one can use their tendencies in different ways. One who is born under a sign which relates to blood can be a murderer or a mohel. Eisav may have had some violent aspects to his personality but how he chose to use them was up to him. This issue is really just the latest iteration of the age old question of nature vs. nurture. How much are our children a product of their lineage and how much are they a product of their environment? I believe that unraveling this question is a theme of sefer Bereshis and specifically of parsha Toldos. When Rivka is described in our parsha (Bereishis 25:20) she is called the sister of Lavan HaArami. Rashi says that this extra phrase is to tell us
Rivka’s
greatness; she was so righteous despite the nature of her family. The Seforno, on the other hand, explains that the  phrase is here to explain the fact that Eisav was born to a couple like Rivka and Yitzchak. How could such a wicked person come from such parents? The answer is that Eisav was very much like a different branch of the family, his uncle Lavan. Interestingly, both commentaries say that this phrase is to tell us how great Rivka is, but in very different ways. Rashi says it shows her  past to have been difficult and focuses on her ability to influence her own destiny while the Seforno says that it explains
why her progeny’s path was no fault of her own
. Although the Seforno seems to be stressing the nature
aspect of Eisav’s behavior, the
reality is that these complex families reflect the significance of nurture. We are being told that a Rivka can come from a family of Lavan and Besuel and an Eisav can come from Yitzchak and Rivka. Pedigree is not the whole story;
it can’t be
counted on, nor is it an immutable sentence. At
the end of the parsha the Seforno himself makes this clear in his comment on Eisav’s choice of
wives. Eisav takes the daughter of Yishmael and the Seforno takes this as an indictment of Yitzchak that he did not object to his new prospective daughter-in-law. The Seforno posits that

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