Religious Life

Keep Far From a Bad Neighbor

“Keep Far From a Bad Neighbor”
18 Cheshvan 5777 • Vayeira • November 19, 2016
Rabbi Alexander Davis

I haven’t been to a Vikings game to know if they do the wave. But I imagine it would be pretty cool looking in the new stadium.

The wave is not only fun, it is contagious. It first appeared in 1986 at a World Cup soccer tournament in Mexico City. Shortly afterwards, a group of physicist who study waves did a study to understand how thousands of individual fans can form a group wave. They found that stadium waves consistently move clockwise at 20 seats per second. Their point was not the physics. Rather, they discovered that social networks can have properties that are not controlled or even perceived by the individual. That is to say, something can happen in my social network that affects me even if I might not even be fully conscious of it.

This idea was recently reaffirmed around a different topic- obesity. As described in the book, Connected, two Harvard-trained scientists, Fowler and Cristakis found that if your friends are obese, your risk of obesity is 45% higher. If your friend’s friend is obese, your risk of obesity is 25% higher. If your friend’s friend, friend is obese, someone you probably don’t even know, your risk of obesity is 10%. That makes the whole question “should I have seconds on dessert” much more “weighty.”

Fowler and Cristakis dubbed their finding, “the three degrees of influence rule” meaning that we are tied not just to those around us, but to others in a web that stretches farther than we know or consciously appreciate.

While not an academic study, we see a similar phenomenon in our parasha around a topic that has recently gripped our nation.

You know the story well. Abraham, the first Jewish lawyer, makes a good argument that a God of justice should not condemn the innocent of Sodom together with the guilty. And Abraham, who really knows how to negotiate, cuts a tremendous deal with God. He gets God to agree to hold back His furry and anger. All Abraham has to do is find ten righteous men and the city would be secure. No problem, right?

Well, we know how the story ends. Sodom and Gemorah were destroyed. Apparently, not even ten righteous could be found. Or perhaps, it’s not so simple.

Let’s go back and review. Abraham cries out to save Sodom and Gemorra saying, “will you sweep away a righteous person together with a wicked person haaf tispeh tzadik im rasha? Far be it from You, God, to do such a thing, to bring death upon the righteous like the wicked, for then the righteous will be like the wicked, v’haya k’tzadik k’rasha” (Gen. 18:23-25).

Abraham’s moral indignation is praiseworthy. He is a champion of justice and compassion. But perhaps he is also blind or at the very least naive. Abraham is convinced that there are ten righteous people in town. So he stops negotiating. But that is precisely where he is confused.

Abraham says to God, “will you sweep away tzadik im rasha, the righteous together with the wicked.” God answers, “that is the problem- tzadik im rasha.” The righteous were together with the wicked. In the words of the midrash (Gen. Rab. 49), “God says to Abraham, “You think there are ten tzadkim on whose behalf the cities should be saved. But they aren’t tzadikim gemurim, truly righteous.” We are given a hint of their shortcomings in the Torah. For, every time the word tzadikim is written here, it is written missing a yod meaning that their righteousness is defective. (Check it out on page 103 if you don’t believe me.)

What was it about the tzadikim that made their righteousness incomplete? It is not hard to understand. It was just what Abraham witnessed, tzadik im rasha, the righteous were together with the wicked. Hang out with the wicked long enough and it is bound to rub off. They had adopted some of the perspectives and ideas of the wicked. The rabbis explain it with an analogy: When you enter a tannery, even if you don’t buy anything, you nevertheless come out smelling rotten.

This is as the 2nd century sage, Nitai the Arbelite, cautioned: “keep away from a bad neighbor. Do not associate with a wicked man. Harchek mishkeyn ra, v’al titchabeir larasha” (Avot 1:7). The medieval Spanish commentator the Meiri explains: there are two reasons for keeping away from a bad neighbor and wicked man. First, you might get harmed when his eventual downfall catches up to him. Second, associating with such people will lead to a deterioration of your own character. It may happen subtly, unconsciously; but you will gain weight by their diet of evil.

This is a principle we appreciate. Parents know it. Bosses know it. Presidents should know it. The people that surround us, they matter. Our classmates, friends, neighbors, work colleagues, the people we choose and appoint as advisors- they matter. They influence us for good and bad. They might raise us up to be better or lower us to wickedness. And not just them, but the people that are part of their networks out at least three degrees of separation.

That was the finding of a famous social science experiment called, “The Third Wave.” The experiment took place at a California High School in 1967and taught students how ordinary Germans could be caught up in a wave of racism. This too revealed the tremendous power and potential danger of social networks.

Let’s return to Abraham negotiating with God. Abraham says, “Ok, ok. I grant you, they are not tzadikim gemurim, not completely righteous. Still, we need to save them; we need to at least give them a chance. They will prove they are worthy and we’ll save the city.” God is not convinced. God says, “they are deplorable. They cannot be redeemed. You call them defective tzadkim but what they really are r’shaim in disguise.”

Abraham and God evaluate these tzadikim differently. Both agree that they are chaseirim not completely righteous. Abraham prays for them. He holds out hope that they will rise to the occasion. God, on the other hand, calls for their removal arguing that their negative influence is too destructive. And while they come to opposite conclusions, both Abraham and God share the same basic understanding: k’tzdik k’rasha, as the rasha, so the tzadik meaning our righteousness is not ours alone to determine. As individuals, as a community and as a nation, for good and bad, we are intimately bound to others. We influence each other, we are judged on the basis of with whom we associate and who associate with us.

And so, we must surround ourselves with good people. It is a value we try to instill in our children when we tell them make good choices in friends. It is a value we practice in schools and neighborhoods we choose. And it is a standard to which we should hold our leaders. For, given the potential of influence by even a tertiary network, given the potential of being caught up in a wave, we must be ever vigilant and mindful of surrounding ourselves with honest, ethical, trustworthy, smart, motivated, caring, wise, people. They don’t have to look like us, think like us or believe like us. Rather, as my teacher, Rabbi David Wolpe says, “we should choose our friends not only based upon who they are but upon who we wish to be.”

And this is as we pray each morning upon rising (see Sim Shalom, p. 66):

Yehi ratzon milfanekha Adonai elohai v’lohei avotai, shetazileinu hayom uvekhol yom … meiadam ra umeichaver ra, umishkeyn ra umipega ra umisatan hamashchit. May it be Your will, Adonai my God and God of my ancestors to protect me, this day and every day from insolence in others and from arrogance in myself. Save me from vicious people, from evil neighbors and from corrupt companions. Preserve me from misfortune and from powers of destruction. Teach me to cling to your Torah and mitzvot, to individuals and to a community that strive for righteousness “leman ashar yitzaveh et banav v’eit beito acharav v’shamru derekh hashem laasot tzadaka v’mishpat that we might teach our children and our children’s children to follow the path of God doing what is just and right” (Gen. 18:19). Amen.