Last Wednesday I went to Lambeth Palace for a conference with the Chief Rabbi, and this Wednesday he came to Bowdon for a conference with my colleagues and I. The focus on the day was on the rapidly changing face of medical science and how that relates to the Rabbinate both as Halachic decisors and as pastoral caregivers.
During a break between the sessions I was reminded of Fran Lebowitz’s one-liner: ‘you are only as good as your last haircut’. For I was learning a verse from the Sedra, and I realised that I was reading it entirely through the eyes of our last presenter. The presenter, a professor in medical oncology and consultant at the Christie, had just spoken on (amongst other things) genetics and personalised medication in cancer care and research. We had learned of inherited genetic markers and the pros and cons of pre-emptive surgeries. How much are we a product of our parents? What is indelibly written in our genes? What responsibilities do we have in trying to circumnavigate the unknown future because of our ever growing knowledge of our past?
It was these questions that were top of mind when I read the above-mentioned verse: the second one of the Sedra; ‘Yosef was seventeen years old’. At first glance, this is just a simple statement of fact regarding Yosef’s age. But Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch notes that the literal Hebrew reads as; “Yosef was the son of seventeen years’. He writes that we are all banim, children of the last years of our lives. Whether we are conscious of it or not, they are our mothers, educating and shaping us.
That comment really struck a chord at that moment. We are the children of our lives. When we come to a crossroads in our life, when we are faced with a moral dilemma and have to make a decision; the choice will be based entirely on our experiences, education, environment etc until that point.
That thought was further compounded when our next speaker, a consultant clinical geneticist, mentioned inherited embedded memories. Whilst these will not change a person’s DNA, they can cause certain lines within it to be magnified. We can inherit character traits, higher sensitivities, dependencies etc based on experiences had by our predecessors. Our decision therefore at the above-mentioned crossroads will also be based on our ancestors’ experiences and education.
Yosef’s actions, his brothers’ reactions, and the entire subsequent story was thus a product not just of the current circumstances and their sibling rivalry, it was a story generations in the making. That does not mean that it had to happen that way, Yosef and his brothers still had absolute free choice in their actions, but they were definitely predisposed to a certain path. Their challenge was to decide whether they were going to be shackled by their history or were going to free themselves.
And thus I saw the ongoing similarities with that story and the lectures we were hearing that day. The professor from the Christie discussed the scenario whereby a person knows that he or she has a certain gene, or if multiple ancestors have suffered from a certain illness, then they have a choice to resign themselves to their fate or to take pre-emptive action (always with full professional advice). The geneticist posed the question of the Ashkenazi young man who has a moral responsibility to screen for genetic markers such as Tay-Sachs before going on a Shidduch.
In short, their message was that we do not always have to play with the cards we are dealt with, we can and should take responsibility where that possibility exists.
And what is true of medicine is true of morals and ethics. We are a product of our past, but we still have a responsibility to form our responses with an eye to our own lives and that of our children. Its why Yosef, once he had dragged himself out of prison and started on his own path to greatness, called his sons Ephraim and Menashe; two names that embodied the past but with a view to the future.
How glad I am that I just so happened to read that specific verse on that day. We are the products of three thousand years of Jewish history, but we are also the writers of generations still to come.
What are we embedding into our grandchildren’s DNA?