Bamidbar-Likkutei Sichos-The negative and positive influence of social surroundings

This article is an excerpt from the above Sefer

Parshas Bamidbar:

The negative and positive influence of social surroundings

[Likkutei Sichos Vol. 33 p. 10]

Parshas Bamidbar discusses the census taking of the Jewish people and the order of encampment of the tribes during their travel through the desert. On the description of the area of encampment of the Levite family of Kehos, the Midrash, and Rashi comment that Korach, who was from the Kehos family, affected the neighboring tribe of Reuvein, to join the rebellion against Moshe and eventually suffer the fatal consequences which culminated as a result. The Rebbe takes to task the difference in wording between the Midrashim and Rashi, and derives from it a variety of perspectives of the quality of influence a neighbor, friend and society have on people. Much of the way we think, feel, speak, and act, is directly influenced by the people whom we socialize with, and are surrounded by. There are however different levels of influence that exist, which depend on prior dispositions and weakness points, or strong points, that the person has. This Sicha is an eyeopener for all those who seek betterment of character, and growth in Torah and Mitzvos, to pay close attention with whom they associate and the surroundings that they are found in.



Explorations of the Sicha:

1. What effect did the neighboring tribes have on each other in their form of encampment?

2. Why does Rashi change the wording from his source in the Midrash?

3. What spiritual relationship does one share with a neighbor?

4. What are the three levels of effect that a good or bad neighbor have upon a person?


1. The order of the encampment of the tribes:

In Parshas Bamidbar, the Torah describes the positioning of each tribe in their encampment and journey through the desert.[1] The tribes of Yehuda, Yisachar and Zevulun were on the Eastern front. The tribes of Reuvein, Shimon, and Gad were on the southern front. The tribes of Efraim, Menashe, and Binyamin, were on the western front. The tribes of Dan, Asher, and Naftali were on the southern front. In the center of the camp lay the tribe of Levi. The Levite family was split into four groups; Moshe, Ahron and their families were on the eastern side; The Kehos family were on the southern side; the Gershon family was on the western side, and the Merori family was on the Northern side. Accordingly, the tribes of Reuvein, Shimon and Gad were neighbors of the Kehos family. The Midrash states that this closeness eventually led to a pitiful occurrence during the rebellion of Korach against Moshe.


2. The effect of the family of Kehos on the tribe of Reuvein:

In the infamous revolt of Korach and his followers, many men of the tribe of Reuvein lost their lives. Korach, who was a Levite from the family of Kehos, desired to create a revolt against Moshe Rabbeinu, and the leadership positions that he and his brother Ahron held. Korach naturally turned to his neighbors, in the south, which were members of the tribe of Reuvein, to join his revolt, and many did so readily. When punishment and death were eventually meted out towards the rebels, many members of the tribe of Reuvein met their death. The Sages[2] analyzed the collaboration of the members of the tribe of Reuvein to the revolt of Korach, and concluded the reason that they were most prone to join the revolt over any of the other tribes is because they were a neighbor of Korach, and a bad neighbor has a bad effect on oneself. In the words of the Sages “Woe to the Rasha, and woe to his neighbor.”


3. The three descriptions of the effect Korach had on the neighboring tribe of Reuvein:

We find three distinct descriptions of the effect of Korach on his neighbors, the tribe of Reuvein.

  • The Tanchuma[3] states “In south was positioned the Kehos family, and near them were Reuvein, Shimon and Gad. From here Chazal state “Woe to the Rasha and woe onto his neighbor.” These three tribes who were neighbors of Korach and his followers in the south were lost together with them, in the rebellion.
  • The Midrash[4] states “The three tribes in the south, who were the neighbors of rebels, were destroyed with them, and on this it says “Woe to the Rasha and woe onto his neighbor.” They were neighbors of Korach, and due to this closeness Reuvein, Shimon and Gad were all rebels.”
  • Rashi[5] states “The tribe of Reuvein was a neighbor of Kehos. On this it says “Woe to the Rasha and woe onto his neighbor.” The neighboring family of Kehos, and Korach, to the tribe of Reuvein, caused Dasan, Aviram and the 250 members of the tribe of Reuvein to be drawn to the rebellion, and be killed with Korach and his followers.”

The differences-Who was effected? While all three sources seemingly express the same common sentiment, that the neighboring of Korach caused the tribe of Reuvein to be drawn to the dispute and destroyed with the quash of the rebellion, a closer look at the nuances of the sources show that they differ in important details. While both the Tanchuma and Midrash Raba state that all three tribes, Reuvein, Shimon and Gad, were effected, Rashi only makes mention of the tribe of Reuvein, and lists the people who were killed due to the rebellion. This is even more troubling, in light of the fact that elsewhere, when discussing the effects of a good neighbor such as Moshe and Ahron who were in the Eastern side, Rashi[6] states that they effected all three eastern tribes of Yehuda, Yissachar and Zevulun.

The differences-How were they effected? Furthermore, the Tanchuma does not state that the neighboring tribes joined the rebellion and simply states that they were effected in the quash of the rebellion, and died. It makes no mention of what role they played, if any, in the rebellion itself. On the other hand, Rashi clearly states that they were drawn into the rebellion. The Midrash goes one step further, and states that both Korach and the three tribes were all rebels. Unlike Rashi, the Midrash does not make any differentiation in level or role played by Korach and the three tribes in the rebellion, and makes it seem that they were all rebels of equal level. Rashi, on the other hand, clearly states that Reuvein was drawn into the dispute, and was obviously of a secondary level to the rebellion.

These nuances may sound like subtle and irrelevant to the non-discerning learner, although in truth, they reveal a great difference of approach in understanding the effects of neighbors, as will be explained.   


4. The effects of a bad neighbor:

We are all aware of the effects that society has on us, whether it be a neighbor, friend, classmate, co-worker, or general neighborhood and country. Everyone agrees that one’s surroundings has effect on oneself, the question however is to what level. There are three possible levels of affect that one’s neighbors and surroundings can have.


5. First level-An external effect-The neighbor effects the person’s quality of life and living:

It is possible for one to remain immune and protected from the bad habits and character traits of friends, neighbors and community. He can prevent any of the bad traits from affecting him in his character or actions. However, being that he lives in that community, and is a neighbor of that person, any punitive actions taken against those people will affect also him and his family. The mere fact that he is neighbor, makes him prone to side-effects of any consequences of the neighbor’s bad actions. Furthermore, at times one is punished due to his association with the criminal. We find this in Chazal[7] regarding the family of Miriam Bas Bilga who were all collectively punished due to Miriam’s heresy. Miriam belonged to a family of Kohanim who served in shifts in the Temple. After Miriam’s abandonment of her faith and apostasy, the Sages fined the entire family. [At times, this may sound unfair and unjustified, but in truth sometimes not doing anything wrong does not mean one is clean of any guilt or wrongdoing. The premises of guilty due to association, is that one either fed or fueled the crime through one’s interaction with the perpetrator, or one remained complicit and did nothing to try to prevent it from occurring.]


 An example:

If one’s neighbor has a bad habit of not throwing out the garbage, and has a yard full of food scraps and other rubbish, then it will attract cats, rodents and other insects to the home. While one is of no fault per say, the infestation of the animals and insects can affect his home area as well. Even though one is careful to keep a clean and tidy home, and is not influenced by his neighbor’s lack of cleanliness, he feels the side effects of those actions.

Another example: if crime in one’s area is very high and the police place a curfew on the neighborhood, it will affect every person living there, even if there was never any crime committed by a specific homeowner, and his block is considered a safe block. Although the owner is not involved in any crime, he becomes affected by the fact his neighborhood has people who commit crime.

Another example: It is common after a Muslim terrorist commits a terrorist act that the authorities arrest his entire family and close friends. In Israel, it is common to destroy the home of the terrorist, even though his parents may not have done anything wrong. This is a classic case of guilty by association. The premises of guilty by association, is that the parents are perhaps responsible for the terrorist ideology inherited by the child, or that they remained complicit and did nothing to try to prevent it from occurring.


5. Second level-Internal Effect-The neighbor influences the person’s actions and character:

It is possible for a neighbor or community member to be influenced by his neighbor and neighborhood, to act in similar ways as they do. The bad character, and troubling actions that they participate in can affect one’s own character and actions and corrupt the pure state that he was in when he first moved to the area.

A Parable:

One who does not smoke, but is surrounded by friends and family who smoke, may be influenced to do so as well. He’ll naturally have a desire to experiment the cigarette, and from there who knows to where things will carry. In fact, this is how many people become smokers, and is the top cause for smoking, as listed by the American Lung Association.

Another example: One who is surrounded by neighbors and people who dress immodest, watch inappropriate movies and shows, talk in a crude or disrespectful manner, is prone to be influenced to act the same way. People may not notice that the way they talk and think is often affected by a friend or acquaintance whom they spend time with. After some time, one can begin thinking and talking like them, being affected on a totally subconscious level.


In the words of the Rambam:

In his magnum opus, Mishneh Torah, the Rambam in his section on human character, entitled “The laws of Deios”, writes:[8] “It is the nature of man to have his character and actions influenced by his friends, acquaintances and people of his country. Therefore, it is imperative that one attach to Tzadikim and be in their surroundings, so he learn from their ways. If one is found in an area of Reshaim, he is to leave their vicinity and move elsewhere.”


6. Third level-A neighbor reveals subconscious traits:

When one is influenced by a bad friend, neighbor or neighborhood, it can be due to two factors. One is that the person is genuinely a good person and simply became interested in the bad behavior after witnessing it being practiced by others. The second is that the person always contained within his character a leaning towards this bad behavior, and witnessing others do it brought out this bad character from its subconscious or controlled state, to out in the open where it is now expressed in action. This is the third level of influence of friends, neighbors and society, that if one’s surroundings lack control in areas in which he already holds a struggle, it can reignite those struggles and cause him to fall prey to his bad traits.  


An example:

One who was an addict and managed to rehabilitate himself must remove himself from any interaction with his previous life as an addict. Addiction relapse is common, and nearly half of people who rehabilitate return to their addiction after some time. According to studies, the most glaring cause of relapse is the lack of one removing himself from interaction with his previous life as an addict. Simply leaving numbers of dealers, and friends with whom one practiced the addiction, on one’s phone, can ignite within him a desire to re-practice the drug if he happens to see the number. More so, continued interaction with family and friends with whom one practiced his addiction is a major cause of relapse. It’s not that they are consciously influencing the ex-addict to relapse, but rather that their memory or company subconsciously invoke the weakness the person had in his addiction. This is why rehabilitation experts impress upon all patients who seek treatment to detox not only from the drug or alcohol, but to do a full life detox and remove from their lives and homes any and all memory of their previous life of addiction.

Another example: A person who struggles with anger management issues can make use of many useful methods of calm and control to repress his anger and stop it from surfacing. Successful implementation can make a person return to a normal and healthy, life and relationship with his family and friends. Often, however, the inner character of this person has not changed, and it is simply that he has learned control methods with which to quash the anger or stop it from surfacing. If such a person is found in an area, or with people, who struggle in anger management, and he enters a situation in which another person gets angry, it can cause an instant eruption of his own subdued and normally controlled anger. All the methods of control that he studied and implemented for years can disappear into thin air, due to the explosive ignition caused by the other’s anger. It is similar to one who protects an item soaked with flammable fluid from touching a fire, in which case if he is unsuccessful, and a fire bypasses and touches the fluid it will erupt in flames. A fire of anger in one person ignites the dormant fire of anger in another.   


7. Tzaraas-The source of the effect of a bad neighbor:

Interestingly, we find the source of the influence of a bad neighbor, in all its three levels, hinted to in a certain command relevant to Tzaraas. The concept of “Woe on the Rasha and woe onto his neighbor” is used in Halacha regarding a person who finds the Tzaraas lesion on his wall. The law states that in such a case, the area of the lesion on the wall must be excavated and removed. Now, what happens if that wall is a shared wall with another apartment, and removing the bricks on which the lesion has grown will leave a hole in the neighbor’s wall? In such a case, Halacha[9] dictates that not only must the joint bricks be removed, irrelevant of the neighbor’s protest, but the neighbor must actually help and assist in its removal and its following renovation. The Mishneh comments on this Halacha, that from here we learn the concept of “Woe on the Rasha and woe onto his neighbor.” The three levels of influence of a bad neighbor can be found in this case as well, upon analyzing the requirement of the neighbor to help the owner remove the bricks. Perhaps the requirement is due to the fact that they own a joint wall, and thus, although there is nothing wrong with the bricks on his side of the wall, he must share in the workload of the renovation. This is similar to the first level of effect of a bad neighbor, in which one is only affected externally, in collective responsibility. Alternatively, the requirement to help remove the effected stone is because also the stone on his side of the wall has become contaminated and needs removal. This is similar to the second level of effect of a bad neighbor, in which one is also internally influenced. The third level of influence discussed above can be found in a dispute[10] in the above law, regarding if the neighbor must help tear down all the stones that are opposite the infected stone or only the infected stone. If one holds the neighbor must tear down even the stones that are not infected, simply because they are opposite the infected stone, it seemingly shows that he too carries a similar bad traits to that of his neighbor, and hence they both must remove their corresponding stones.


8. The Tanchuma, Midrash, and Rashi each express one of the three levels of effect of a bad neighbor:   

Based on all the above, one can now understand the reason for the nuances of changed wording found in the Tanchuma, Midrash and Rashi. The Tanchuma, who makes no mention of the tribe of Reuvein entering the dispute, holds of the first level, that the influence of Korach on the tribe of Reuvein was mainly external, and they received collective punishment due to association. Rashi, however, who mentions that the tribe of Reuvein was drawn to the dispute, holds of the second level, that the influence of Korach on the tribe of Reuvein was internal, and they received punishment due to collaborating in the rebellion. The Midrash, however, who equally states that both Korach and Reuvein were rebels, holds of the third level, that the influence of Korach on the tribe of Reuvein was simply an ignition of the rebellious character that they already contained in a dormant state.


9. Why Rashi made no mention of the tribe of Shimon and Gad:

According to the above explanation in Rashi, one can explain that Rashi only made mention of the tribe of Reuvein, unlike the Mechilta who mentioned Reuvein, Shimon and Gad, being that he felt there was not enough proof in scripture to show that also Shimon and Gad were affected internally and joined the rebellion. Although, all three tribes were affected by the collective punishment[11], we find no hint in scripture that they played any role in the actual rebellion.


10. The effect of a good neighbor:

The Sages[12] state “Good onto a Tzaddik and good onto his neighbor.” After the above analysis, on the social effects of bad surroundings, it is fit to analyze the reverse scenario; the effects of a good and positive surrounding. It would seem, that just as a negative surrounding has three levels of effect, likewise a positive surrounding has three levels of effect. These being: 1) Effecting one externally, that he collectively benefits from the reward or prize of the good character of the neighbor or friend; 2) That his character changes for the better due to the good influence of the neighbor or friend, and 3) That his natural good qualities which are dormant become aroused due to the good actions of the neighbor or friend. However, in truth, one can propose that the influence of a good neighbor or friend has greater advantage than the influence of a bad neighbor. Every person is born with innately good qualities, and desires to be a fair and good person, and it is simply that his inclination or social environment drive him to sin. Accordingly, if one surrounds himself with good people, it will automatically bring out his natural good qualities and desires, and give one the third and highest level of effect. This difference between the quality influence of a good and bad neighbor can explain why the Tanchuma and Rashi, in his commentary regarding the influence of Moshe on the neighboring tribe of Yehuda, mentions that the Torah learning of Moshe influenced also Yissachar and Zevulun, as the influence of a good neighbor is of greater quality and can affect more people.


An example:

Ask anyone you know if he agrees that one should be a nice, kind and polite person who knows to compromise and listen to another, and surely, he will answer that one must aspire to acquire such traits. However, many people do not carry these traits and struggle with their ego when placed in a position that necessitates compromise or listening skills. If such a person is surrounded by examples of people who exemplify these character traits, and sees firsthand how they live by them, then not only do these people become role models who one aspires to emulate, but their good will begins affecting one’s own character for the better. A good deed and action is contagious, and encourages others to do the same, as also the others truly agree that one should do so, and simply need an example to help them overcome their inclination.


12. A prerequisite for peace is Torah, and a prerequisite for Torah is peace:

It is not coincidental that the lesson of “Woe onto a Rasha and woe onto his neighbor” is written specifically regarding the bad trait of Machlokes, strife and dispute, while the lesson of “Good onto a Tzaddik and good onto his neighbor” is written specifically regarding the good influence of Torah learning. The reason for this is because Torah learning and strife and dispute are not just the opposite sides of good and evil, but are the antitheses of each other. If one desires to abstain from argument and strife he must absorb himself in Torah learning, in a fashion that will help fix his character. On the other hand, one who is involved in strife and dispute, it is not possible for him to truly grasp and unite with the Torah. Torah learning must be accompanied with peace and unity for it to truly become one’s nature. 


Lessons of the Sicha:

· People may not notice that the way they talk and think is often affected by a friend or acquaintance whom they spend time with. After some time, one can begin thinking and talking like them, having been effected on a subconscious level. This applies for the good and for the bad. It is thus imperative for our proper development in Torah, Mitzvos and good character, to be surrounded by people who are role models and people who have the good traits that we aspire to gain. It goes without saying that we must distance ourselves from people and surroundings who carry bad traits that we do not want to exemplify.

· The above lesson can extend not just to friends, family and neighbors, but even to our very own selves. Each person contains various faculties of expression; feeling, thought, speech, and action. These faculties are neighbors of each other and affect each other. Negative or improper speech effects one’s thoughts, feelings and eventual actions, to act, think and feel accordingly. For example, screaming and shouting ignites feelings of anger, which triggers thoughts of revenge or punishment, and leads to actions of such nature. Likewise, bad and negative thoughts affect our emotions, which affect our speech, and eventually affect our actions. One must hence view all these faculties as one unit and not allow evil or negativity to be expressed by any one of them, as one influences the other.

· Stay away from Machlokes. Machlokes and being a Torah Jew do not coincide. The Torah brings peace and we must work on attaining a character that brings peace onto others.      


[1] Chapters 2-3

[2] Tanchuma 12; Yalkut Bamidbar Remez 686; Midrash Raba 3/12

[3] Tanchuma 12; Yalkut Bamidbar Remez 686

[4] Midrash Raba 3/12

[5] 3/29

Why did Rashi feel a need to explain this matter on this verse? Seemingly, this is due to the superfluous wording in the verse “The family of the children of Kehos.” Why by the family of Kehos did the verse choose to add the word “children” while by Gershon and Merari, simply the family name was mentioned. 

[6] 3/38

[7] Sukkah 56b

[8] Chapter 6 Halacha 1

[9] Mishneh Negaim 12/6; Toras Kohanim Metora 14/40

[10] See Mishneh Negaim 12/13 and Rashi Chulin 128b

[11] So is evident from the Mechilta and Midrash

[12] Tanchuma ibid and Rashi 3/38

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