Anyone would tell you that Todd Sikorsky had a tough life, but usually he would be the first one in line. It is not easy being the father of three rambunctious boys, all three of whom were diagnosed with ADHD and one who was diagnosed with ODD (Oppositional Defiance Disorder) on top of that. It is not easy being a mortgage broker in any town, and especially not in Bartlett, IL where the real estate market went cold in 2008 and hadn’t really warmed up since. And sure his boss Jim Farrady seemed real nice in the TV ads and on the huge billboards all over town, but everyone at the office knew the real deal; he was a soul-sucking, lying, aggressive brute who always tried to cheat his agents out of their hard earned commissions.
When he was at home, Todd felt like he was in the zoo, and when he retreated to his office it wasn’t exactly Disneyland either. But there was this one place he would go in between work and home that did provide him some sort of refuge, Joe’s Corner Bar. At Joe’s everyone knew him, people were pretty nice, and it was a welcome distraction from the rest of his miserable life. Joe’s was not a touristy bar, it was a local watering hole, where you would see the same people come and go, and where you would see Todd every day.
Todd always sat in the same place, the far corner of the bar near the restrooms. He usually started with a Budweiser or two, but as time went on, he would start supplementing his Budweisers with a couple shots of Jim Beam, eventually leaving the Budweiser behind while he focused on ordering more doubleshots of Beam. By the time Todd drove home on most nights, his brain was so well bathed in alcohol that he was nearly incoherent. His wife kept nagging him to give up the drink, he had a few DUI’s on his driving record, but Todd was not about to give up his only refuge.
To give him credit, he had tried a few times. He joined AA, he went to a few meetings, but somehow he always ended up back at Joe’s, where after his sixth doubleshot he would sermonize about how “AA was for quitters.” If you asked Todd about it, he would point to his Polish ancestry and a long history of alcoholics in his family. “Hey man, I know it’s not great to live like this, but I didn’t choose it, it’s in my genes!”
What Todd did choose, was to drive home on the evening of March 12, 2013. He may have already had nine shots and two beers, but he did have to get home, it was getting late. As he drove down Carlton Ave, he saw the light turning yellow. He knew that this was a long light and the only way to beat it was by speeding up and sliding through just before it turned red. His calculations may have been a bit off, because it turned red while he was still a hundred yards out, but he decided that he was going to run right through this one, the cops never hung around Carlton Ave anyway.
While he was right about the cops, he was totally wrong about Cathy Bryant who was running that evening, and began jogging across Carlton Ave as soon as the light turned red. Todd’s Dodge and Cathy Bryant came into violent contact, and only the Dodge made it out alive.
Cathy was a beloved mom and teacher, and the community was horrified at her death. People were calling for the death penalty for Todd and his lawyers knew that there wasn’t much standing in between Todd and the electric chair. But then they read about a new discovery of a genetic marker that seemed to be linked to alcoholism. A region on the 15th chromosome controls the flow of a brain chemical called GABA between the neurons, and one variation of the gene, called GABRG3 was definitively linked to alcoholism. They tested Todd for GABRG3, and indeed they found heavy concentrations of it on his 15th chromosome. Evidently Todd had been right all along when he said, “I didn’t choose this, it’s in my genes.”
Click here to read more about the genetic markers for alcoholism
On most days Kara woke up hating herself. Life seemed to be closing in on all sides. Even with sunlight streaming into her room on a bright spring morning, even with the chestnut tree outside her window in full bloom, everything seemed covered in a thick gloom. Getting out of bed was an arduous task every single day, and she was often not successful at it until well past noon.
Even after getting out of bed, she moved laboriously around the house, an invisible ball and chain slowing down her every movement. Sometimes she didn’t make it out of the house at all, sometimes she would get out for a few hours to go to college and then retreat home. Then there were the rare days when the sun pierced through the gloom and she actually had a good day. But that was usually followed by a few more days of depression, hyper focused on why she couldn’t have more of those good days.
Holding down a job was a particular challenge for Kara. If she came in for an interview on a bright day, she usually interviewed well and got the job. But after two or three late arrivals and a few no-shows she was eventually let go by the apologetic HR guys. Panera, GAP, Starbucks, Costco, Bed Bath and Beyond, Marshall’s, Best Buy, and Target had all hired and fired her. She still had a stack of the uniform shirts sitting in a box at the bottom of her front closet, a box that gave her further reason to be depressed.
But in reality, the reason she was depressed had nothing to do with her. After months of research and hours spent in online forums on depression, she finally discovered that she was simply born with depression built into her system. There is a gene called SIRT1, which is important for the energy producing cell structures called mitochondria, and in her SIRT1 there was a deficiency linked to depression. It wasn’t only her, there are 350 million people worldwide challenged by depression. And while not everyone who has the same deficiency on SIRT1 finds themselves debilitated by it, Kara definitely was a victim of bad genes. She wished she could have a better life, but those genes, they really did her in….
Click here to read more about the genetic markers of depression
The previous two characters are fictional representations of real people. The next two characters are real and the events depicted below happened.
On a cool fall night in 2006, Bradley Waldroup killed his estranged wife’s friend in front of his four children. He then tried to kill his wife, who miraculously got away.
His legal team knew that the death penalty would most definitely be invoked, so in an unusual approach to try to save their client, they took a sample of Waldroup’s blood and sent it to a genetics lab at Vanderbilt University. Unsurprisingly, they found that Waldroup had a genetic variant on his X-chromosome, one that coded the enzyme monamine oxidase-A, also known as MAOA. This enzyme is responsible for breaking down some of the most important neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine. When they don’t do the job, these neurotransmitters can build up in the brain causing explosive and violent behavior. Almost every major psychopathic killer, from Ted Bundy to the Sandy Hook killer Adam Lanza has impaired MAOA function.
Bradley’s lawyers presented their findings to the jury, showing how Bradley’s genetic makeup caused the violent rage he later regretted. The jury spared him the death penalty and he was only sentenced to thirty-two years in prison. When asked after the trial if the genetic evidence swayed the jury not to give Bradley the death sentence, one juror responded, “Oh, I’m sure.”
Jim Fallon is a neuroscientist and a professor at the University of California. For twenty years he researched the brains of killers and sociopaths. One day at a family BBQ with his 88 year old mother, his wife asked him, “Why don’t you find out a little bit more about your family?” He had a conversation with his mother and found out a deep dark secret, His ancestry was riddled with killers. One of his direct great-grandfathers, Thomas Cornell, was hanged in 1667 for murdering his mother. That line of Cornells included another seven alleged murderers including Lizzie Borden who was controversially acquitted of murdering both her parents with an ax in Fall River, Mass in 1882. Granted, another one of his ancestors was Ezra Cornell, the philanthropist who founded Cornell University, but there were more prominent bad apples than good ones on his family tree.
Disturbed by this finding, he decided to look at his family’s brains to see if any of them looked like the killer’s brains he studied for the past twenty years. Specifically, he was looking at the orbital cortex, the area of the brain associated with ethical behavior, moral decision making, and impulse control. So he did PET scans of many of his family members, and studied them carefully. All of them looked pretty normal, except for his. His orbital cortex was much smaller than the rest of his family, disturbingly similar to the psychopaths he studied. Yes somehow he was a family man, happily married, well adjusted, and a respected faculty member at a world class university.
Today, there is a lot of conversation about nature vs. nurture, about what people are born with, and what they learn by their environment. There is also a lot of conversation about morality and genetics, and their interplay. And as we discover genetic markers for more behaviors it becomes a more complex question. Not only are there genetic markers for anger and violence, but there are genetic markers for depression, alcoholism, and jealousy as well. Can someone be held accountable for things they did wrong even if they were genetically predisposed for that behavior?
The Torah in this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Noach, not only provides the answer, it also proves that the Torah’s understanding of the human psyche was millennia ahead of scientific understanding. The Torah in this week’s portion says (Genesis 8:21), “For the design of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” The Torah is telling us that G-d purposely creates us all with moral failings, and that our job in this world is to overcome those predispositions.
But when you read Rashi, the primary commentator on the Torah, this revelation becomes even more powerful. Rashi on that verse says something surprising, “From the time he stirs to go out of his mother’s insides, the urge to do evil is put in him.” For thousands of years, people probably looked at that Rashi with a degree of incredulity. What evil do babies have in them from the time they are born? Babies are so cute and innocent!
But today, geneticists are finally discovering exactly what Rashi meant. From the time a baby comes out of its womb, it already has certain negative traits coded into its genes! For some it may be a propensity for alcoholism, for some it may be a tendency for violence, and for others it can be extreme sadness, jealousy, or anger. It may take years for that gene to express itself, but it was there from the moment the baby was born.
The secret that the Torah is teaching us is that we are bigger than our genes. We don’t have to be the person our genetic makeup says we can be. Jim Fallon may have the orbital cortex of a psychopath but he is a loving father and respected community member. Many people have the genetic markers for alcoholism, and some of those people may have even been alcoholics for a while, but they overcame their genetic disposition and swore off all alcohol and have not had a drink in 20 years!
The great Chofetz Chaim, OBM said he was predisposed for anger, (our Sages teach us that many Kohanim are), yet he was a paragon of peace and serenity. This did not come naturally. He would often leave heated discussions and walk into a different room. Some of his students were curious once and put their ears to the door, and heard him talking to himself, “Yisrael Meir! You are a Kohen and you are predisposed for anger. Calm yourself down so that you don’t destroy yourself!”
One of the greatest living sages, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, told of himself that as a child he had no zitz fleish, no ability to sit still. He was a wild boy, and couldn’t focus on his studies. With the help of his uncle, Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, and enormous personal work, he taught himself to sit still, and spent the next 50 years sitting down and studying and became one of the greatest Torah scholars of the day.
Your genes don’t make you do things. They may predispose you toward certain behaviors, and indeed we believe that everyone has some genetic markers for some sort of evil behavior, but you don’t have to let them define your actions.
You can be bigger than your genes. The greatest victor is not the one who subdues others, but the one who subdues his very own nature.
Parsha Dvar Torah
So there is a Great Flood with only 8 human survivors. They spend a year and change drifting around in a massive wooden boat, with thousands of animal, bird, and insect shipmates. Finally, the land lust starts running high. Afraid to venture out on his own, Noach sends out a couple of different birds hoping that one of them will find dry land. The raven refuses to leave the ark’s vicinity, but the dove, ever brave, courageous, and chivalrous, and sets out to find land.
The first time, the dove returns empty handed, not having found anything. However, the second time he is sent out, he returns with a branch from an olive tree, indicating that the floodwaters had subsided. The third time the dove does not return – clear proof that he has found a peaceful resting place on the newly washed earth.
One might wonder why it was an olive branch that was the mechanism chosen by G-d to show Noach the world would be inhabitable once again. G-d could have used any one of hundreds of fruits, yet He chose the olive. Why? (I personally would have hoped for an avocado branch, After spending about a year in the Ark, I would really appreciate a fresh guacamole!)
I lived in Israel for four years and went on many hiking trips in the beautiful and picturesque Galilee. There one can find olive trees growing in the wild, clear reminders of olives status as one of the 7 fruits Israel is blessed with. Being that I love olives (there is no place better than Israel for olive lovers – one can go to stores with tens of varieties of olives of every color and size), one day I decided to taste one of the many olives lying on the ground around one of the trees. Imagine my surprise when I found this natural, organic, fresh olive to be entirely inedible! It was bitter and tart, and I couldn’t even finish the one olive I had bitten into.
Wikipedia helped me with an explanation: “Olives freshly picked from the tree contain phenolic compounds and a unique glycoside, oleuropein, which makes the fruit unpalatable for immediate consumption.” (You see, you learn something new every day. I bet you didn’t know that!) There are a number of ways of processing olives to make them palatable. One can use one of several fermentation techniques to make olives edible, or crush them to make olive oil. But it is clear that olives need extensive processing in order to have any value to human beings.
Maybe this was the message of the olive branch. G-d was hinting to Noach that if he wanted to be able to repopulate the world properly he would need to undergo extensive processing. Naturally, man has a lot of evil in his heart. As the verse says in this weeks parsha, “For the inclination of man’s heart is evil from [the time of] his youth.” (Gen. 8:21) His physical body pulls his mind toward the lowly ground from where it came, while his soul draws it upward to the spiritual world from where it originated.
The generation of the Flood was one that didn’t try to process at all. They just let themselves follow their raw, natural, and physical desires. This led to a world so evil that it needed to be washed clean, so it could have a fresh start. When the flood was over, G-d sent the olive to Noach as the instruction manual for the New World Order. The only way that man will be able to survive is by processing constantly, pressing and fermenting himself, to extract the best he has to offer world.
This week’s parsha talks mostly about the Great Flood. The basic idea behind this cataclysmic event was that mankind had had such a negative effect on the earth that a complete overhaul was necessary. G-d returned the earth to its most primitive state, and the few survivors were able to rebuild on a clean slate. If they had tried to program the new world order on top of all the existing filth, immorality, and depravity, it would have been nearly impossible to succeed, so instead G-d washed the world clean, and let them paint on a fresh canvas. The opening verses of this Parsha express that concept, while also teaching us another important lesson.
These are the offspring of Noach. Noach was a righteous man, flawless in his generation; Noach walked with El-him. Noach fathered three sons, Sheim, Cham and Yafes. The earth was corrupt before El-him, and the earth was filled with violent crime. G-d saw the earth and beheld that it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted its way on the earth. G-d said to Noach, The end of all flesh has come before Me. The earth is filled with violent crime because of them, and so I will destroy them with the earth. (Gen 6:9-13)
One lesson that is not readily apparent without the benefits of Rashi’s wisdom is the explanation of the first two verses. It says, “these are the offspring of Noach” but then, before mentioning his offspring, the Torah tells us that Noach was a righteous man. How did that get stuck in there? Rashi explains that the primary offspring of a person are his actions and the effects they have on others. His children are certainly important, and he can have a powerful positive effect on them but, ultimately, what he bequeaths to the world are his actions not those of his children.
G-d commanded Noach to build the ark a hundred and twenty years in advance of the flood. He did this in hope that people would ask, “Hey Noach, what is this woodcraft project you’ve been working on for the last eighty years?” and Noach would explain to them that earth was about to become a really wet place for a while due to man’s evil actions. This would hopefully inspire the people to repent. However, in typical bad-people fashion, they instead chose to mock Noach and tell him that if he dared try to enter the ark, they would break his 120-year project and then kill him (see, I told you they were bad guys).
The ark was pretty big, about 600 feet long, 100 feet wide (or, as you yachters would say, “it had a beam of 100 feet”), and 60 feet tall, 22 of which were below the water line. Despite the large dimensions of the ark, it was a massive miracle that Noach was able to fit thousand upon thousands of animals into this area. The ark was split into 3 floors, waste on bottom, animals in the middle, and humans on top. It had a light source which some say was a skylight, while others posit was a special luminescent stone.
When the time for the flood came, animals starting miraculously trekking to the ark from all corners of the world. G-d commanded Noach to take a male and female from every non-kosher species and seven pairs from every kosher species. The ark would not allow any species that had mated with other species to enter (some say that this is when dinosaurs died out). When the rain started coming down thick and fast and the aforementioned bad guys came to stop Noach from entering the ark, G-d set up a ring of lions and bears around the ark preventing anyone from getting near it. Check. Mate.
For forty days and nights the flood waters raged, with rain falling heavily from heaven, and underwater boiling springs erupting and spewing out steaming sulfuric matter from below. The waters came down until the highest point on earth was thirty feet below the water line. Then, after the forty days, the waters stopped coming down and up, but the existing water stayed put for another 150 days. The waters then slowly started receding.
Noach sent out a raven to see if there was any dry land, but the bird didn’t even check, he just flew around the ark, afraid that someone was going to steal his mate. Next, Noach sent out a dove three times. The first time he came back empty handed, the second time he brought with him an olive branch, showing that the water level had dropped substantially, and the third time he stayed out, confirming that there was dry land once again. Soon after that, exactly a year after the flood began, Noach left the ark with his wife, his three children, their wives, and all the animals.
When they left the ark, G-d gave them a blessing that they be fruitful and multiply, to refill the now desolate world. They immediately brought offerings to G-d. Then, tragedy struck. Noach planted a vineyard, made wine, got drunk, and fell asleep in an uncovered position. One of his sons, Cham, debased his father in his nakedness, and then went out to tell his other brothers. Shem enlisted Yafes, and together they covered their father, while looking the other way, so as not to see their father in a compromised position. Noach awoke, and understanding what happened, gave Cham a severe curse, and gave Shem and Yafes blessings.
From Noach and his family sprouted all of the nations of the earth, and the Torah goes into great length telling over the genealogy of Noach’s children and grandchildren, as each of these grandchildren would be the father of a nation that would arise later in history.
Humans simply don’t seem to learn their lesson. Only a few generations after the Great Flood, under the leadership of the wicked king Nimrod of Babel, mankind devised a plan to take G-d out of the picture. They attempted to build a tower that would reach the heavens itself, so they could then challenge G-d, and chase Him away. These people, although wicked, had one merit – they presented a united front, there was no bickering and arguing between them. However, since this unison was being used for an evil purpose, G-d punished them by introduced the concept of language to mankind. Suddenly, people were speaking 70 different languages! As you can imagine, the building of the Tower of Babel went downhill quickly (I speak the same language as my contractor yet I never feel I can get exactly what I want over to him, imagine if we didn’t speak the same language!). From Babel , the people began to spread out to all four corners of the earth, where they are until this very day!
Quote of the Week: The bridges you cross before you come to them are over rivers that aren’t there. ~ Gene Brown
Random Fact of the Week: Benjamin Franklin invented crop insurance.
Funny Line of the Week: I like rice. Rice is great when you’re hungry and you want 2,000 of something.
Have a Supernal Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham