No one chooses what family they’re born into.

If we remain in the safe comfort of our cocoon, too afraid to step outside our social conditioning, we forfeit our freedom and our sense of self.

Whether you’re Hassan Yousef, the son of one of the founding members of Hamas who rejected his terrorist upbringing and was Israel’s prized spy for 10 years, or Jennifer Teege, the Black German motivational speaker who discovered that her grandfather was Amon Goeth, the notorious Nazi commandant of Plaszow concentration camp, we all have our baggage (some more dramatic than others).

But your life’s starting point doesn’t define you; your choices do.

The makeup of each person is comprised by a dizzying array of inborn strengths and weaknesses and powerful influences from one’s family and society. But we are not imprisoned by our nature, circumstances and upbringing. Free will gives us the power, with determination and clarity, to break out of our box and forge our own path.

As the Talmud teaches:

Rebbe Chanina bar Pappa explained: the angel appointed to oversee the conceiving of a child takes a drop [of semen] and brings it before the Holy One and he says, "Master of the World! What will be with this drop? Will he be strong or weak? Wise or foolish? Rich or poor?"

The angel does not ask if it will be righteous or evil, as Reb Chanina explained: "Everything is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of Heaven." Babylonian Talmud, Nida 16b

When it comes to the pivotal choices that define us – ones which fall into the moral realm – those are entirely up to us.

If we remain in the safe comfort of our cocoon, too afraid to question and step outside our social conditioning, we forfeit our freedom and our sense of self. We reduce ourselves to just one of the herd robotically following the mores and pressures of our respective society.

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the great rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto, beautifully expressed this point in his journal, To Heal the Soul:

…if there is no person, just one of the crowd, there can be no free choice or personal will. Because who will choose if, besides the herd mentality, there is no one there at all? Not only must [man] not remain imprisoned by social rules, cultural customs, or accepted thought without the ability to see beyond them but he must also have a mind of his own. Without this, not only is he not a Jew but he is not even a person.

Every individual spends the formative years of his life stuck inside the box of social conditioning. But we have the self-awareness to recognize that we are conditioned, that our values and convictions are essentially accidents of birth, unexamined beliefs that we have not questioned or verified.

When we start to think about our place in the world and ask ourselves the frightening question, “Why do I believe what I believe?” we create a small fissure in the box. We realize there are alternative viewpoints and ideas to explore, that the truth must be out there and that I need to go try to find it. Thus begins the process of one’s second birth – the birth of one’s true, individuated self.

My disbelief in God wasn’t a thought-out position; I simply didn’t know. My beliefs were the default positions of the society in which I was born.

This recognition compelled me to question my non-religious upbringing and to examine the possibility that God exists. I realized my lack of belief in God wasn’t a thought-out position; I simply didn’t know. My beliefs were merely the default positions of the society in which I was born.

Smash Your Idols

Abraham, the first forefather of the Jewish people, is the most obvious example of person who questioned his upbringing and searched for truth. Growing up in a world steeped in idolatry, Abraham smashed his father’s idols and embarked on an intellectual quest that eventually led to the revolution of monotheism and the covenantal relationship with God and the Jewish people.

Moses also underwent a sea-change in his thinking. Pulled from the Nile river when he was a baby by Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses grew up in the lap of enormous luxury and power in the palace of Pharaoh. Yet he “went out to his brethren and saw their pain” (Exodus, 2:11). It’s easy to miss, but this sentence is a bombshell.

Imagine the intellectual odyssey Moses went through in order to go from ruling Prince of Egypt to identifying with the enslaved, downtrodden people as his brothers! It’s a dramatic, 180 degree turn. He decides, “I’m with them,” and then risks everything by killing an Egyptian who was striking a Hebrew slave, flees to the desert where he encounters God and the burning bush, and becomes the greatest leader of the Jewish people.

And it all starts with asking the question: “Who am I? Why do I believe what I believe?” and having the courage to think for yourself.