The Shlosha D'Puranusa:

Nature, Nurture, and Spiritual DNA

by Miri Korbman

 

One of the most fiercely debated issues in modern psychology is regarding the influence of genetics on behavior, intelligence, and mental health outcomes. The nature vs. nurture discussion can be distilled into three camps. There are those who believe that nature, one’s DNA and inherent characteristics, is the most powerful predictor of these factors. Others insist that nurture, one’s upbringing, experiences, and environment, is a more influential variable. Of course, the third camp contests that it is likely a mixture of both nature and nurture that impacts our development.

 

Studies following twins and adoptive children yielded mixed and fascinating results on all sides of this debate. Some studies showed that twins brought up in the same home, despite sharing genetic material as well as environmental contributors, had significantly different cognitive abilities, interests, character traits, and mental health profiles. Other studies found the opposite; twins or biological siblings who were adopted and raised in different homes, with almost no similarity in the nurture aspects of their upbringings, ended up in remarkably similar careers or struggled with similar mental health problems in adulthood. The potential ramifications of this issue are myriad and can impact everything from physical and mental healthcare decisions to parenting styles. Furthermore, the nature/nurture debate calls into question a crucial element of humanity, one that plays a pivotal role in Torah Judaism: if I am who I am at birth, given my genetic makeup and the characteristics of my ancestors before me, what is the extent of my free will in choosing my own path and my own behavior? If nature and/or nurture shape my future, do I have any power to choose a different path?

 

During the three weeks, we read three Haftaros known as the Shlosha D’Puranusa, three sections of Navi that tell of calamity and punishment. In this week’s Haftara, Yirmiyahu relays Hashem’s disappointment and anger with the Jewish people for their sinful behavior, and Hashem warns Klal Yisrael of the punishments that will befall them in consequence to their misdeeds. Hashem asks, rhetorically, “What fault did your forefathers find in me that they distanced themselves from me?” (Yirmiyahu 2:4). Hashem goes on to chastise the Jewish people for the various sins they committed in the past, and for those being committed at the time that Yirmiyahu was prophesizing. Hashem’s words beg the question, however: are the Jews being punished for the sins of their forefathers? We know that Hashem judges each person “Baasher Hu Sham,” according to where he is in that moment - how can we reconcile this verse with this idea? Furthermore, what relevance do these prophecies, delivered before the destruction of the first Beis HaMikdash, have to us today? Why are we continually bearing the sins of those who lived thousands of years before us, and how are we meant to learn anything from their distant experience?

 

God Himself reveals the answer from within this same prophecy. In Pasuk 21, Hashem laments, “V’Anochi Nitatich Sorek, Kulo Zerah Emes; V’Eich Nehepachta Li Surei HaGefen Nachria??” “And I planted you a noble vine stock, throughout of true and right seed; how have you turned yourself into a degenerate, foreign vine??” Rashi notes that the “noble vine stock” is a reference to the Avos and Imahos. Hashem is wondering aloud how it can be that the Jewish people, whose roots run back to the righteous Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, could possibly have fallen into the degenerate and sinful state He found them in at that time.

The shock and despair inherent in this lamentation is itself the key to our redemption as a nation. God does not expect us to atone for the sins of our forefathers; rather, because the Jewish people can be traced back to the Avos and Imahos, we know that we share common traits. Our nature, our genetic makeup, is directly linked to our forefathers, and this carries both positive and negative ramifications. It is not that we are responsible for the sins of previous generations, but that because we share a similar nature, it is likely that we, too, might find ourselves sinning similarly, and therefore have similar things for which to atone.

 

If we read through the Shlosha D’Puranusa each week, it does not take a particularly close reading to find within the prophets’ words and warnings passages that directly relate to our current experience. Forgetting Hashem, placing more faith in humans, in rocks, in nature and technology, than in God Himself, is a tale as old as time – with devastating consequences. Hating our fellow Jew needlessly and without justification, worshipping the foreign Gods of culture, science, and money, going through the rote motions of Judaism without any connection or fervor – do these sins sound so distant and unfamiliar? Hashem’s warning, that our forefathers distanced themselves from Him, is in actuality a wakeup call – He is asking us to examine our own deeds, to consider how we might be making the same or similar mistakes. He is not blaming us - nature and genetics are powerful influences. But Hashem is pushing us to be different, to allow the nurture of a new time, a new set of circumstances, new personal identity, to change the end of the story. 

 

The idea that we as a nation are planted from a “noble vine,” is not just an expression of Hashem’s disappointment in His people; it is also a promise to us that there is hope. Just as there are traits passed on in our spiritual DNA that continue to obstruct our path to redemption, there are also traits passed down through those same strands that can actually pave the way. Our ability to return to God, as He urges us through Yirmiyahu at the end of the Haftara (4:1), is as inherent as our fallibility. Just as our forefathers found God, drew closer to Him than anyone, so we have that natural capacity. In the case of the Jewish people, the debate regarding whether nature or nurture is more influential is inconsequential because we are guaranteed that, by virtue of our nature and through the choices we make in nurturing others and ourselves, we have the capacity to overcome, and to return.

 

Each year, it may seem more and more daunting to enter the three weeks with any kind of hope for a different outcome. These days are marked on camp calendars months before we reach them, the determinism a blight on our motivation to introspect and change. And yet, we must not forget that though we may fall into similar patterns of sin, we also have the capacity to reach the spiritual heights set forth by our Avos and Imahos. We can find God where no one else can see Him. We can sacrifice for His sake and align our will with His. We can withstand the relentless persecution and oppression of our enemies, and we can remain steadfast in our faith despite it all. As Tisha B’Av approaches, let us try to tap into those elements of our spiritual DNA that will enable us, as a nation, to see the final redemption speedily and in our days.