Woe to the Wicked, Woe to his Neighbor

This week’s Torah reading dictates where each tribe should camp, as the Jews traveled through the desert on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land. Rashi takes note of the fact that the tribe of Reuven was settled near the family of Kehat, and comments (Bamidbar 3:29), “Woe to the wicked one, woe to his neighbor.” This is referring to the episode in which Korach, from the family of Kehat, wrongfully instigated an uprising against their leader Moshe(Moses). His followers were from the tribe of Reuven, who were camped near Korach.

On the other hand, Rashi notes that the tribe of Yissachar was situated near Moshe and says (3:38), “Fortunate is the righteous and fortunate is his neighbor. Because they (the people of Yissachar) were neighbors of Moshe who was involved in Torah, they too became great in Torah.” The lesson the Torah is hereby teaching is how imperative it is be with the right people.

Do your Research

Our Sages warn us specifically (Avot 1:7) to stay away from people of ill character and say, “Distance yourself from an evil neighbor, and do not connect to a wicked person.” Rabbeinu Yonah says that just as one does research before he makes a large purchase to ensure it fits his needs, he should always investigate the environment to determine the kind of people in a place, before he settles there.

The Peleh Yoetz (Shachen) stresses that even if one is strong in his resolve to refrain from emulating the ways of an evil neighbor, by being in close proximity to such a person, he will inevitably become influenced negatively to some extent.

Character is Contagious!

Rabbi Ovadya of Bartenura quotes from our Sages that it is akin to someone who enters a tannery, a place with a most foul odor. Even if he doesn’t touch anything, the smell will cling to him to some degree.

The Alter of Kelm (Chochma uMussar, Vol. 1 chapter 231) compares this to a physical illness. No matter how determined a person may be to avoid being sick, if he lingers near an ill person, he is likely to catch the disease. So too, bad character traits are contagious illnesses, and by connecting or living near a person with flawed character, a person is exposing himself to being affected by the ill character. Being the neighbor of a person with compromised standards results in trouble. On the contrary, our Sages tell us that one should specifically make a point to connect to the wise and righteous. When one makes sure to be near virtuous people with upstanding character, even if he is not on the level to emulate their deeds, Rabbeinu Yonah assures that he will gain from it.

Is the Meat Kosher?

Too often, we underestimate the power of influence our peers have on us. By nature, we like to think that we are in control of our values and behavior, and cannot be easily swayed by the people we come in contact with.

The Ben Ish Chai (Ben Ish Chayil, Vol. 3, p. 147) demonstrates the fallacy of this notion with the following allegory: A young, learned man got married, and moved into the bride’s parents’ home. The father-in-law committed to fully support him so that he can be completely engrossed in his Torah study. The father-in-law warned his new son-in-law that the people of the town did not possess high values, and he should do his best to avoid contact with them. However, the young man wanted to socialize, and claimed that he would influence the other people for the better, instead of them influencing him negatively. Before long, the son-in-law’s behavior indeed took a negative turn.

One day, the father-in-law approached the young man and asked him, “A non-kosher piece of meat was placed into the pot which was cooking kosher meat for the next meal. What should be done with it?” He examined the pot, and told his father-in-law that since the kosher content did not equal sixty times the non-kosher meat, it cannot be eaten.

The following day, the father-in-law again approached the young man and told him, “Today, the opposite thing happened. A kosher piece of meat fell into a pot full of non-kosher meat. I measured the proportions and there was not sixty times non-kosher meat as the kosher meat which fell in, so based on what you told me yesterday, I figured the meat remained kosher.” The son-in-law was astonished and said, “I only said it the other way. One non-kosher piece of meat will easily disqualify many other kosher pieces of meat, not the other way around.”

“Well,” said the father-in-law, “so too, one source of bad influence could easily have a negative effect on all the others. The other way around is not so likely.”

Up to your Standards

This is not a small challenge. Often, we choose our surroundings based on the material benefit we stand to gain. But we must realize that there is a lot more we must take into consideration. When making decisions in life, we cannot forget to ensure that our surroundings should always be up to our standards.

By Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber torah4every1@gmail.com

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