An Ethiopian Jewish pillow depicting Adam and Eve (Photo/Sue Fishkoff)
An Ethiopian Jewish pillow depicting Adam and Eve (Photo/Sue Fishkoff)

Like Abraham and Sarah, you can steer yourself to be the human you want to be

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Genesis 1:1–6:8

Who in the Bible had the best genetic inheritance and the best living environment? Who was best prepared for success?

Adam and Eve.

No one was ever awarded a more glorious start or a more splendid endowment than Adam and Eve. They were created by God Himself, who personally crafted them in His Divine image.

Also, no one was ever born into a better and potentially more nurturing environment than Adam and Eve; upon their creation, they were placed into the Garden of Eden, ripe with abundance. How much better could they have had it?

They enter the stage, in this week’s Torah portion, already in possession of the best DNA and the best environment in the Torah. Nature and nurture? They have the best of both. And they had to work for none of it. It was all gifted to them.

In spite of their lofty beginnings, despite having been handed everything pretty much on a platter, Adam and Eve fail dramatically. They succumb to temptation, they deny personal responsibility, they blame each other and manage to get into a fight, and are soon expelled from Paradise.

Their story, which sounds so blissful and certain to succeed, is ultimately fraught with difficulty and ends up as a tragedy.

Now, who in the Bible was endowed with the worst heredity and environment? Who had the highest mountain to climb? The answer: Abraham and Sarah.

Born to parents indistinguishable from their pagan contemporaries, they had a rough beginning. In fact, Abraham’s father was an infamous idol manufacturer, effectively the CEO of Idol Depot. And the cultural environment in which Abraham and Sarah were brought up was immoral. The people of their generation were barbaric and depraved, as exemplified by Sodom and Gomorrah.

Yet, in spite of their most unfavorable pedigree and environment, Abraham and Sarah went on to revolutionize the course of history, bringing God and his ethical teachings to humanity, and becoming the founding father and mother of the Jewish People.

By cutting against the grain, they succeeded in changing the world.

Why did Adam and Eve fail in spite of their glorious beginnings, and why did Abraham and Sarah go on to succeed, despite having both nature and nurture stacked so heavily against them?

A boy comes home from school and sees his father reviewing his appalling school report card which is filled with F’s. The boy asks his dad with artful innocence and a naughty smile, “Dad, what do you think the trouble with me is — heredity or environment?”

So, what exactly was the trouble with Adam and Eve?

The answer lies in the choices they made and who they chose to become. Adam and Eve did not choose to transcend their natural instincts. They gave in to them instead. They saw God’s command as a constraint from which they wanted to break free, rather than as something that could elevate them.

In contrast, Abraham and Sarah elected to rise above their natural instincts and given circumstances, seeing that there were two possible routes to take. For them, the Divine command liberated them, it gave birth to noble character and a higher way of living.

“100% natural” is great for food, but it’s absolutely terrible for human beings. If you want to live with the nobility only a human being can attain, then you have to transcend your base nature. The status quo just isn’t good enough.

In order to be human, we have to be more than human. There is a divine spark in the human heart. If we don’t encourage it to grow and fan the flames of it at a conscious level, then we lose it.

All of Judaism, every mitzvah, every syllable of Torah calls us to rise high above our nature, so that we can come to live in friendship with God.

Judaism itself is a sustained struggle, the greatest ever known, against self-resignation to the person I am, in the name of the person I could be.

Abraham and Sarah’s story reminds us that we always have a choice, that it is never too late to reshape our lives no matter what has gone before.

No matter how low we start in life — no matter how low we may have fallen — we can always chart a new course. Biography does not have to be destiny. There are always going to be cultural influences, but we can decide to rise above them. There are also strong genetic influences on our behavior, but we can also choose to acknowledge and master them.

You too are a child of Abraham and Sarah.

You inherited their strength and their vision. You are the master of your own destiny and can steer your own course in whichever direction you choose.

Rabbi Dov Greenberg
Rabbi Dov Greenberg

Rabbi Dov Greenberg leads Stanford Chabad and lectures across the world.