Neighbours

It is common for people to be concerned to keep good company because they consider that it reflects on how other judge them. However, in Jewish thought the reason for seeking good company is because being around good people reinforces good behaviour, whilst surrounding oneself with bad people has the ability to do the reverse. Modern psychology has shown that a great deal of human behaviour is learned vicariously, by watching and copying the actions of those around us (Bandura, 1986). This was an insight that profoundly informed the thinking of the Rabbis of all generations, who often repeated their warning about sticking with the good guys.

Ethics of the Fathers (2:9) quotes great scholars who insisted that a good friend or a good neighbour are the most important factors in finding the good path. Ethics of the Fathers (1:7) also warns to "stay away from a bad person." The rabbis taught (Talmud Sukka 56b): "It is good for the righteous and it is good for his neighbour, while it is bad for the wicked and bad for his neighbour too."

The famous Biblical story of Lot and Abraham is a lesson in the impact of neighbours (Genesis 19). Lot learned good habits from his uncle Abraham, such as hospitality. However, when he move away from Abraham to the city of Sodom, where the people were wicked, he got caught up in the consequences of their actions, grievously suffering as a result. What was Lot doing in a place like Sodom?

Another Biblical story (Numbers 16) tells of a man called Korach who led a rebellion against Moses. Into this conflict he dragged a large number of members of the Tribe of Reuben. The reason this tribe got involved is because they were bordering Korach. The result was tragic and disastrous, leading the rabbis to caution against consorting with quarrelsome people.

In Ethics of the Father (6:9) Rabbi Yosei ben Kisma relates: "Once when I was walking down the road, a certain man met me. We greeted each other. He then asked me, Rebbe, from what place are you? I said to him, I am from a great city of scholars and sages. He then asked, Rebbe, would you be willing to live with us in our place? I would give thousands upon thousands of golden dinar, precious stones and pearls. I replied, Even if you were to give me all the silver and gold, precious stones and pearls in the world, I would dwell nowhere but in a place of Torah."

Maimonides writes (Laws of Proper Conduct 6:1) "A person is drawn in their thoughts and deeds after their neighbour and friends and become accustomed to the ways of their countryman. Therefore, a person should join with the righteous and dwell upon the wise, so that they he may learn from their ways, and should distance himself from the wicked who wlak in darkness so as not to learn from their ways." Maimonides goes further saying that if one cannot find a place to be among good people, it is better to go live in a cave!

If this is true of adults, this is even more the case with impressionable young people. Of course, we should reach out to everyone, including people who have gone astray, but we should do so within certain boundaries.