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Pirke Abot 1:7
Guilty by Association
Nitai of Arbel says:
‘Distance yourself from a wicked neighbour,
do not befriend a sinful person
and do not discount misfortune.’
In my life thus far I have lived in four cities (three countries). I was born and raised in Los Angeles, studied in Jerusalem, raised a family and worked for sixteen years in New York and I’ve lived in London now for four. In that time I have met thousands of people, experienced different customs and cultures, and heard a myriad of accents and styles of speech. It has all influenced me and contributed greatly to who I am.
A great deal of its influence, however, occurs without me knowing. My accent, thinking and approach to life are always responding to my surroundings, subtly moulding my character and persona. They tell me in London that when I have spent an extended time in the States my American accent is far more pronounced when I return than it was when I left. I notice no difference at all. While I use British spelling in these essays (several of my American readers are convinced that my writing is rife with typos!) people have noticed that I have even begun using it unconsciously in my personal communications as well. Aspects of West and East coast America, Israel and Britain have seeped into my speech, behaviour, thinking, philosophy, world-view and interactions without any conscious effort of my own. I could not have lived in the places and amongst the people that I have without having assimilated the diverse experience into myself. Nor, in truth, would anyone.
If we are to live an examined life and consider how it is that we wish to develop ourselves and what people we wish to become, a crucial factor in such decisions must include around whom we surround ourselves and the environment in which we live.
In which school will we educate our children? Which university will we choose? Where will we raise our family? To which congregation will we affiliate or become members? Where will we work? Many of us do not base the answers to these questions primarily on the people we will find in each circumstance. Schools and universities are usually considered firstly on the basis of their academic quality and calibre. But what of the social setting? How will the environment, people and ideas, influence me? Where I choose to live may have to do with cost, schooling, commutes to work, and neighbourhood, but what level of priority is the question of the kind of people who reside within that neighbourhood, among whom I will be spending every day?
My career path may have to do with my personal aspirations, interests, financial promise, and viability, but with whom will I be working? What are the conditions in which I will find myself on a regular basis?
It is an influence upon us that is unavoidable, no matter how thick we may perceive our skin. We are all affected by it to a greater or lesser degree.
The issue of human associations has been an overarching theme in the principles presented to us by the Hakhamim at the opening of Pirke Abot. Yet until now, they have told us with whom we should actively seek company. Here, for the first time, Netai of Arbel, tells us from whom we should keep our distance:
Keep distance from a wicked neighbour.
Do not befriend a sinful person.
An obvious point to question here is what is the key difference between his first and second statements? We have a ‘wicked neighbour’ and an ‘sinful person’. What is different between them? And why with the wicked neighbour am I to keep distance, while I am simply not to befriend the sinful person?
The Hebrew word for ‘wicked’ here is רע – ra. Literally, evil. The Hebrew word used for ‘sinful person’ is רשע – rasha. Literally, one who intentionally chooses to sin. The difference is that there can theoretically be a rasha — a person who chooses to transgress the Torah’s commandments — who is still a decent human being who acts with kindness and compassion towards others. There may also be such a person who does not. In other words one can be sinful and wicked and one can be sinful but not wicked.
Raba said, it is written: “Woe to the sinful wicked one, for the work of his hands shall be done to him” (Isaiah 3:11). And is there a sinful man who is wicked and is there one who is not wicked? Rather, one who is wicked toward Heaven and wicked toward people is a sinful, wicked person; and one who is evil toward Heaven and not evil toward people is [termed] a sinful person who is not wicked. (Kidushin, 40a)
A great many of the commentators on this mishna understand the first statement of Nitai to be referring to a wicked individual who, in their lack of empathy and compassion, cause suffering, pain and hardship to others. They are not just sinners, but evil. Nitai warns us from even living within the vicinity or being next to such people for fear of their character and behaviour influencing us. In a case where the person is evil in this sense, proximity alone is dangerous and we are susceptible to assimilating these practices in our own lives.
Indeed, it is likely to happen without us even noticing a significant change in our thought or behaviour.
The second statement speaking of the רשע, speaks of someone who is transgressing Torah intentionally, but is otherwise good to others and bears a spirit of empathy and compassion. Friendship is the concern with this person as opposed to proximity. Simply living around the rasha who otherwise is kind and humane, does not necessarily threaten a person’s goal of keeping Torah and mitsvot. A neighbour can be greeted, we can smile and be cordial, but we need not live our lives in our homes as they do in theirs. Friendship is different. Friends frequent each others homes, spend time together, share their lives and thoughts with each other. The boundaries expand and we welcome them into our lives and they welcome us into theirs. When this happens there is a natural, subconscious desire to conform to the environment. If we are socialising, eating together, spending time together, the difference in our approach to Torah will be glaring. Naturally the one who requires a more rigorous discipline will be challenged to maintain it when he or she experiences a friend casually and naturally disregarding it.
It is clear that Nitai is speaking here of an ideal life and how a Jewish person who fears God and keeps Torah in its entirety should live. Such a person cannot afford to befriend one who transgresses the Torah and its commandments. It is not a religious fact, but a human one.
We tend to believe in our own strength and personal conviction a great deal more than we should. While the conscious, creative, planning aspects of our brains maintain what seems to be a clear and obvious identity and integrity, the thrust of the more primal aspects of our brains is powerful, overwhelming, and most importantly, cunning. It desires predominantly to be secure in the group and works with great subtlety and agility to do so. It also has intense veto power against the later-developing part of the brain that handles reason, the prefrontal cortex.
It is from this rigorous honesty and consistent human experience that Rambam rules halakhically that regardless of how strong one is, one must prioritise the criteria for choosing one’s surroundings in almost any situation based on the population
A person who lives in a place where the norms of behaviour are evil and the inhabitants do not follow the straight path should move to a place where the people are righteous and follow the ways of the good.
If all the places with which he is familiar and of which he hears reports follow improper paths, as in our times, or if he is unable to move to a place where the patterns of behavior are proper, because of [the presence of] bands of raiding troops, or for health reasons, he should remain alone in seclusion as [Eichah 3:28] states: “Let him sit alone and be silent.”
If they are wicked and sinful and do not allow him to reside there unless he mingle with them and follow their evil behaviour, he should go out to caves, thickets, and deserts [rather than] follow the paths of sinners as [Jeremiah 9:1] states: “Who will give me a lodging place for wayfarers, in the desert.” (Rambam, De’ot, 6:1)
Our choice of friends and social settings is a choice that directly affects our identity, psychology and behaviours, and if we care about these things we must pause, think and choose wisely. Whom we spend our days with, grow with, and learn from inevitably become part of the fibre of our being. If we are around people who live selfishly, seek what they can take from the world, and think mainly about what, in any given situation, will suit them first, it does not matter how entertaining and exhilarating they may be, we will inevitably imbibe aspects of their values when in their company.
The advice of Nitai of Arbel is simple. But for social animals such as we are, it is exceedingly difficult for many of us to do.
We are terribly weak when we face peer pressure. We may recognise that someone or several people are bad influences on us. They may bring out in us aspects of thought and behaviour that we are not proud of, they may encourage us to be inferior versions of ourselves and to regularly under-achieve. Yet, because we crave belonging, we will seek social acceptance before we seek personal integrity and refinement. Social acceptance is the dark detractor that threatens to thwart Nitai’s sound and intelligent advice.
His third and final point of advice, namely, not to discount misfortune, looks to the future of such choices and begs us to consider the consequences. It may feel secure and safe in the short-run to be part of a group or to be friends with someone who is unscrupulous and unethical. But ultimately, the inferiority and counterproductive nature of the life that we choose by living amongst those who would affect us this way, will have long-term effects on the goodness, quality and stability of our lives.
One such example is the environment in which we raise our children. The conditions in which they are raised today, will become the foundations upon which their adulthood is built tomorrow. If it is sensitive, empathic, compassionate and ethical, so will be their adult lives. If it is superficial, selfish, materialistic and competitive so will be their adult lives. If it is void of, or bears minimal Torah, Jewish education, awareness and pride, so will their adult lives. Of course, it is not only children. We as adults are never static either. Our personalities and traits are always in flux and influenced by our surroundings. Nitai warns us not to dismiss the difficulties
that will ensue in living in a less than ideal environment. The effects may not be keenly felt today or tomorrow, but the time will come when the underlying conditions in which we lived will rise to the surface.
Who makes up our community? How is our social group determined? Who are our friends and comrades? The answers to those questions are among the highest indicators of who we are and who our children will be. The Tanna succinctly charges us to choose wisely and consider our identity and future as a high priority.
Rabbi Joseph Dweck
 See for example, R. Shimon bar Tsemah Duran, ad loc.; Tiferet Yisrael, ad loc (31).