Friday, May 14, 2010

Good Neighbors

In the description of the encampment of the different tribes around the mishkan, the Torah (Bamidbar 3:29) tells us that the tribe of Reuven was in the vicinity of the family of Korach. The Rabbis learn from this that, "Woe is to the wicked, and woe to his neighbor," while "good befalls the righteous, and also his neighbor."

This teaching is mentioned in three different rabbinic sources, and each one delivers it utilizing slightly different diction. In Likutei Sichot, the Lubavitcher Rebbe examines each one in depth. The changes are nuanced, but reflect more than one would think at first glance. By examining each variation, one in Midrash Tanchuma, one in Bamidbar Rabah, and the final one in Rashi's commentary, we can come to a deeper understanding of the power and meaning behind being judged by the company we keep.

In the Tanchuma, it states that the tree tribes bordering on Korach and his compatriots, "avdu imo b'machlok'to", they were destroyed with Korach on account of his divisiveness. This describes the most superficial result of proximity to the wicked: when they get punished, those who dwell beside them are affected, as well.

Rashi's commentary changes the language: "l'kach laku mehem Datan V'Aviram...shenimsh'chu imahem b'machl'kotam", because they joined in the clash with Korach against Moshe, Datan and Aviram were punished. Clearly, Rashi implicates the non-Levites who died with Korach in his sin. It is not mere proximity that doomed them; rather, their proximity led them to join in the sins of the wicked, and thus, deserve punishment. This is a second way that neighboring with evil people brings disaster: there is a palpable danger that one will learn from their ways.

Finally, Bamidbar Rabah puts forth a third variation upon the midrash. "mi hayu ba'alei machloket? Korach...ul'fi shehayu s'muchim kahem R'uven, Shimon v'Gad, hayu kulam ba'alei machloket." Who were the ones in dispute with Moshe? Korach. However, the tribes who lived beside them were all parties to dispute. Likutei Sichot notices the use of the past tense verb here, and therefore understands that this is yet a third dimension to the teaching of chazal: one who ends up dwelling with the wicked reveals a latent tendency within himself to negative influences and behaviors. This is reminiscient of Lot, whose greed and desire for importance led him to the decedance of S'dom, where he became "head to jackals", rather than remain the tail of Avraham's lion (Avot 4:20).

The three aspects of neighblorly effect on one's life also seem to be present in those who choose to live in the vicinity of the righteous. One who makes himself close to tzadikim can benefit from their blessings, as well as learn from their ways. Also, it seems that the impulse to be close to good people is, in itself, fulfillment of an ethical imperative. Rabbi Yose ben Kisma summed this up in 6:9 of Avot.

In modern times, we do not have as much choice as we may like in who our neighbors are. We have limited control over who our children play with, as well. Furthermore, we have a responsibility to help fellow Jews who have lost the path of Torah back to orthodoxy. In light of these realities, how are we to assure ourselves that these aspects of peer pressure are kept in check?

In the past, the book of Job has been quite boring for me. More than forty chapters of long-winded speeches, alternatively complaining about and defending God's ways seem almost like a literary attempt at redundancy. However, I am reading Job's Path to Enlightenment, by Ethan Dor-Shav. By reading the text of Job closely, he comes up with some fascinating insights into the psychology and foundations of faith and religion that apply not only to people in pain and suffering, but to anyone who finds value in a real relationship with Hashem. One of his points, I believe, may perhaps shed light on how we can defend ourselves against the concept of "woe to the wicked's neighbor."

It is generally assumed that Job was a model of virtue before his test from Satan. However, if we pay closer attention, he is only described as lacking the negative: "innocent and straight, and one who feared God and turned away from evil." Indeed, tamim carries a connotation throughout the Bible of naivete. The fourth son at the seder would hardly be considered a tzaddik because of his "innocence"; it is rather a fundamental simplicity that is to be removed by the father and replaced with knowledge and sophistication. Also, Job is described as turning away from evil, but not at all as one who embraces good. He is a model of "virtue devoid of awareness." He is good by rote, by mechanical practice of duty, without developing that spark of interest and passion that marks individuals who engage in a search for closeness to God, "kirvat elokim li tov." Indeed, the essay goes on to demonstrate how Job's suffering bring him to a renewed interest in authentic communion with the Divine, which is only possible when blind routine is expunged from his life.

Most of us live with elements of Job-ness every day. Even when we are passionate and feel close to God, we find ourselves fulfilling the letter of the laws of prayer, tefillin, shabbat-observance and kashrut with an atmosphere of dissociation. In this type of situation, we are in danger of all three elements of neighborly influence. Our very passivity leads us to associate with like people, and we influence each other. The general level of communal observance and passion towards spiritual endeavors may fall, and ultimately, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. So, the lowest common denominator can be reached.

By learning a lesson from the book of Job, we can infuse our duties towards God and our desire for an intimate bond with Him with a sense of true longing and active, authentic growth. With a sense of purpose and awareness of our position, we can overcome the problems of Korach and Reuven. Instead of being influenced by those who are less than perfect, we can develop ourselves as strong role-models for them, and bring them up, rather than be dragged down.