Do we have the power to change our own lives? Or are we entirely the products of our environments? After all, we are buffeted by manifold influences exerted on our lives from all quarters: the powerful effect of the peer groups of our school and college years; the daily barrage from the media; the more subtle influence of literature, art and even architecture.

All these go together to form a remarkably powerful set of mind-bending forces acting on each individual. As a consequence, some sociologists doubt whether most of us are capable of any truly independent view on anything.

An example of someone who did express a highly independent stance, based on G‑d's will rather than peer pressure, appears in this week's parshah.1 There we learn about Rebecca, the wife of Isaac, one of the four famous Matriarchs of the Jewish people.

We first met her in last week's parshah, when she expressed her determination to leave her home and travel far away to become the wife of Isaac. This was not just a youthful urge to travel, a quest for a change of scene. Rebecca came from an environment of idolatry. Everyone around her, including her immediate family and the society in which she lived, believed in idols, such as various nature forces, and worshipped them, often in a horrible way. Her great-uncle Abraham was famous for his rejection of idolatry and his faith in one G‑d. But Abraham was far off in the Land of Canaan.

Nonetheless, Rebecca managed to stand above her situation. As the commentator Rashi points out, despite her surroundings, she managed to arrive at and maintain her own independent view of life: "Although she was the daughter of a wicked man, the sister of a wicked man, and her hometown was a place of wicked people, she did not learn from their misdeeds."

Then, when the servant of Abraham came looking for a wife for Isaac, she seized the opportunity to join the famous family of monotheists. Despite her parents' reluctance, she insisted on going.

In our parshah this week, we see another aspect of her independence. In a personal and revealing account, we learn how she coped first with years of childlessness and then with a very painful pregnancy. This culminated in the birth of the two totally opposite twins: Jacob and Esau!

Although filled with immeasurable love and respect for her husband Isaac, she had had a Divine prophecy about the future of their two children.2 This, combined with her down-to-earth perception of reality, made her determined that Jacob, rather than Esau, should receive Isaac's blessings. The parshah tells us how she achieved success in this aim.

Thus one of the points that this parshah teaches us in its account of Rebecca is the idea of strength of character. She had the ability to stand up for that which she knew was right, risking her own well-being in the process. Through this she ensured the establishment of the Jewish people, the children of Jacob.