To what extent is a person really free? To a great extent, one might feel, we are simply a product of our backgrounds and environment: our parents, upbringing, and education, not to mention any trauma we may have experienced in early life. Indeed, for this reason Jewish teaching lays great stress on the significance of education at every stage of life, beginning with the very young.

However, this perspective is balanced by a contrary principle, which never loses its importance: the total freedom of the individual, whatever his or her situation.

The sedra1 gives an example of this. We read about the quest for a wife for Abraham’s son, Isaac. The search is successful and the beautiful and youthful Rebecca is found. She is kind and generous, with deep spiritual qualities, suitable for the wife of the leading religious teacher of the generation: for that is what Isaac was destined to be. Further, Jewish spiritual leaders have generally functioned as a husband and wife team. This was the case with Abraham and Sarah, and it was to be especially true of Isaac and Rebecca.

The interesting thing is that, unlike her husband, Rebecca was born into a family of idolaters, and lived in a society of idolatry and other kinds of negative behavior. However, despite her surroundings, she had been able to maintain her purity and individuality. When Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, came with the suggestion that she should marry Isaac, she was delighted at the idea that she would be joining the family that famously worshiped the One G‑d, Creator of Heaven and Earth. Evidence for her feelings is seen in the fact that when her family asked her if she really wanted to leave home immediately to marry Isaac, rather than stay at home another year, as was the custom, her answer was a swift affirmative. Yes, she wants to go immediately.2

Rebecca was so emphatic in this statement that the Sages take it as a cue for all future women that a man may not marry a woman against her will. Her independent consent is necessary.3

The Midrash4 terms Rebecca “a rose among the thorns.” This also characterizes the life of each individual. We each have a divine soul, which seeks holiness and goodness, like Rebecca. But this beautiful ‘rose’ is also surrounded by the ‘thorns’ of the animal soul, the sometimes unruly desires of physicality, and the possible negative influences of the environment in which one lives.

Each one of us has the challenge to stand up for our own individuality, that of the divine soul within, in a positive and wholesome way. The sedra tells us that, like Rebecca, we are able to do so. G‑d grants each one of us moral and spiritual freedom.

Very similar are the life-stories of Abraham and Sarah, who themselves came from an idolatrous environment, and, a little later in the Torah, Rachel and Leah, who were her nieces, brought up in the same family.

Each one of us, man and woman, inherits from the patriarchs and, especially, from the matriarchs, the power to be free and to choose our own path. As the Jewish people as a whole we have the power to be ourselves, whatever the prevailing environment, and our goal is to bring true spiritual freedom to all humanity.5