You are not one, you are many. You are trillions. There are somewhere between ten and forty trillion little copies of you in this universe, each one as unique as you are. The trillions of you are found in your DNA, which is found in every one of the trillions of cells in your body.
You DNA is no simple matter either. Imagine your DNA as twenty-three skyscrapers clustered into one community, each one being millions of stories tall, and each one made of different arrangements of molecules, known as base pairs. Each skyscraper is really two buildings, one contributed by your father and one by your mother, and the two buildings are connected by bridges. Skyscraper #1 is the tallest, almost 250 million stories high, while skyscraper #21 is the shortest, about 48 million stories tall.
When the body wants to know how to build you, it looks to the arrangements set up in the skyscrapers for direction. Skyscrapers #15 or #19 tells your body what color eyes you should have. If you’re a redhead, that is because of directions sent from skyscraper #4. Your skin color is mostly determined by directions from skyscraper #16. Your height is controlled by instructions from skyscraper #17 and #5.
There is no one else in the world who has the same skyscraper community as you, which is how your DNA makes you unique. But while your skyscraper community is unique to you, it is not the only one in the world. Every cell in your body has basically the same skyscraper community, so that if even one cell in your body is found, your entire physical body can be deciphered through it.
Unfortunately, some of the instructions being sent out by your DNA skyscrapers are pretty dark. Skyscraper #5 sends instructions for Parkinsons, #1 for glaucoma and Alzheimers, #3 for lung cancer, #6 for diabetes and epilepsy, and if you struggle with obesity even though you eat healthy, blame it on #7.
The good news is that not every instruction is always listened to by the body. There are over 35,000 genes, and many of them can sit quietly for your whole life and never make enough noise to get followed out by the body. Your DNA (your skyscrapers) will not change throughout your life, but the instructions that get listened to might.
This brings us to a field called epigenetics, which studies the changes to a person (or plant, animal, etc) that are caused by how genes are expressed, not by the actual code. Imagine that some of the floors on some of those skyscrapers have cannons that shoot their instructions out to the body, and some don’t. The floors with the cannons are much more likely to have their voices heard than those without. So while your body may have over 35,000 genes, it is the ones with the cannons that are going to have the greatest effect on your body and your life!
(Geek Paragraph, feel free to skip unless you love science! The cannons are called methyl groups. A methyl group is a molecule made of one carbon atoms and three hydrogen atoms. When a methyl group attaches itself to a part of the DNA, a process called methylation, it makes that gene’s expression much stronger, and more likely to be felt throughout the body.)
Recent studies have shown the early months of a child’s life often determine which genes get the cannons. The study looked specifically at one of the most important functions of the body, inflammation, which is the way the body responds to infections and wounds. The inflammatory response is like the fire engines of the body. When a fire breaks out in a house, you want a perfectly measured response from the fire department. You don’t want them to flood the whole house with a deluge of water, but you also don’t want them to come with a few buckets.
If a person has proper inflammatory response, they will generally get sick less often, heal quicker, and live a longer life. Improper inflammatory response, is not only a problem when it underdelivers, and people stay sick longer, but also when it overdelivers and hurts healthy tissue in the process.
In the Philippines, a large study was started in 1983, tracking 3,000 pregnant women from all walks of life; some lived in poor villages with barely a roof over their heads, some were wealthy urban dwellers, some married, some raising their child without a father, etc. Multiple blood samples were taken throughout their pregnancies, their environments were carefully recorded, and then the offspring was tracked for decades, with a final blood sample drawn from each child when they turned twenty-one.
The study found that the environment children were in during their infancy had a large effect on what genes got the cannons. If there were stressors in the home such as unsanitary conditions, prolonged absence of a parent, pervasive lack of marital peace, and economic insecurity, the children did not get the right cannons and had worse health outcomes. If the child felt very safe as an infant, if the baby was nursed for a long time, and was properly cared for, the cannons were delivered to the right genes, and the children had better health outcomes for the rest of their life.
It turns out that the genes that you are born with are not the only thing that determines what your life looks like, but almost as important is the environment you were in for the first few months of life, when your body was deciding which genes would get the power.
You are not one, you are thousands. This coming year, you will be making thousands of micro-choices; whether to smile at the person who passes us in the hall, how to respond when our teenager walks out of the room while we’re in middle of talking to them, whether to get off the couch and go to a Jewish program or just hang back and chill, how much we will invest in our marriages, how will we respond when someone makes fun of another person while in conversation with us, and the list goes on endlessly.
Rosh Hashana means the Head of the Year. We may have a DNA makeup coming in to the year, we may have a lot of genes that have coded for certain activities until now, but Rosh Hashana is the time when we decide which genes will get the cannons for this coming year. It is the infancy stage of the year, when epigenetics decide what genes will get the most expression in the coming year. Will it be the genes that code for positivity and openness, or the genes that code for cynicism and rigidity? The genes that code for putting in the effort to make ourselves great, or the genes that code for “just chillin’?” The genes that code for patience and understanding, or irritability and judgement?
How we act on Rosh Hashana has a major effect on our life. There is an ancient custom (already brought down in the Talmud which was written 1500 years ago), to eat various foods and make prayers for our year to be similar to what those foods represent. We eat apples and honey and pray for a sweet new year, we eat pomegranates and pray that we should have many merits like the seeds of a pomegranate, we eat leek (karti Hebrew) and ask that our enemies should be cut off (yikartu in Hebrew). The purpose of this is to show us how powerful this day is, that even small prayers over food can influence the whole year. This is only possible because we are at the epigenetic moment of the year when our cannons are being placed for the year.
Similarly, the Sages warn us not to get angry on Rosh Hashana, to look at everyone with thoughts of love and acceptance, and to be extra careful not speak any gossip. We don’t want our cannon being places in those corners.
But most importantly, we can spend some time during the long prayer service asking ourselves, “where do I want to put my cannons this year?” I may have a lot of different emotions, habits, and attitudes in my DNA, but I get to decide now, which ones will be active and which ones will be passive! We can ask G-d to help us in lugging over the cannons from the cynical corner to the positive corner, and He will!
The DNA that coded your life until now, does not have total power over you, in the first few moments of the year, you get to decide where your energy will go, what genes will get expressed. May G-d give us the strength to maximize this amazing opportunity, and give ourselves on this Rosh Hashana the greatest gift, a sweet New Year!