My best friend, Jack, is a no-nonsense person who isn’t interested in engaging in philosophical or spiritual discussions that he perceives as pretentious or pompous. While I appreciate his straightforwardness, I am always thankful that, for the most part, he leaves me alone with my inner spiritual struggles.
One of our friends began to dabble in Zen meditation, delighting in posing cryptic queries. His previously implacable serenity was shattered at one bar session when he asked, “Where does the flame go when the candle is blown out?”
“Brooklyn,” Jack answered without hesitation. “You buy the next round.”
Another buddy was on the road to a comic book version of agnosticism and posed this question to me as a test for my fragile belief in the almighty.
“Can God create a stone that he can not lift?”
Jack jumped in to save me.
“God don’t have no hands to lift nothin’ so he created bulldozers,” Jack said. “But the real question is how can God create someone so stupid that he asks that question but his hat still don’t slide down over his eyes.”
Jack pretended to be a cynic but I knew him as a man of deep faith. We spent many hours, just the two of us, discussing how we could better emulate God’s love, how we could truly repent and how we could transform ourselves into better servants of our Creator. And, of course, how to be better fathers and husbands.
One of the few philosophical dilemmas Jack was willing to entertain was the theological version of the scientific ‘nature versus nurture’ question. Jack was troubled by the question of whether a man is predestined to be evil from birth, or whether every person has the choice to be righteous.
Jack was especially bothered by a particular verse in Psalms:
The wicked are defiant from birth; the liars go astray from the womb. Psalms 58:4
“What does this verse mean?” he questioned. “How can David suggest that people have no control over their own moral character, but are instead predetermined to be either wicked or truthful from birth? Don’t we all have the potential to grow and change throughout our lives?”
What did David mean when he wrote this verse?
The biblical commentator Rashi has an answer for Jack.
In his commentary on Psalm 58 Rashi wrote, “From their mother’s womb they become strangers to God.” Rashi compares this to Esau before he was born, as described in Genesis.
But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?” She went to inquire of Hashem, Genesis 25:22
There, Rashi explains even further:
“When she [Rachel] was passing by the gates of the Torah academy of Shem, the fetal Yaakov pushed to get out. But when she passed by a place of idolatry, fetal Esau pushed to get out. One after the other, they were fighting with each.”
This seems to be saying that our very nature is established even before we are born. Is Rashi implying that we do not have free will and our fate is preordained?
The Artscroll Tehillim offers an explanation:
“This verse does not mean that man’s fate is preordained, and beyond his control. Although everyone has free will to choose between good and evil, he is also born with certain tendencies that hinder his ability to choose good. The challenge is to overcome these obstacles. Some have physical handicaps, others have social or economic ones. The people described here (Psalms 58:4) had evil tendencies, which made it difficult for them to think objectively. Nevertheless, by applying themselves to the task, they could have achieved righteousness.”
This has been supported by studies in psychology, which asks the question of nature versus nurture regarding addiction. The American Addictions Centers wrote:
“It is true that some people may have a genetic predisposition to addiction, also known as a substance use disorder (SUD), a medical condition defined by the uncontrollable use of substances despite the negative consequences. However, having a genetic predisposition doesn’t mean that those individuals are guaranteed to develop an addiction. Genetics is just one part of the many factors that can impact your overall risk. Even if you or a family member are struggling with addiction, hereditary factors are not a life sentence, and you can get help to take back control of your life so you can start the path of recovery…In general, genes are thought to account for about half of a person’s risk of addiction.”
Each of us has our own inate tendencies which lead to our own unique struggles. Some are harder to overcome than others, which may seem unfair. But even though they sometimes seem like an internal force that is out of our control, we each have the ability to overcome these compulsions. We are born with inclinations for good and for bad. But nothing is preordained, especially not giving in to our evil inclinations.