Choosing the right spiritual environment (Shabbos 51)
After his brother died in Ur Kasdim, Avraham took his nephew Lot under his wing. Treating him as if he were his own son, they travelled together to the Land of Canaan. In Avraham and Sarah’s home, Lot developed his character traits, including his dedication to hospitality. Eventually, however, as a result of a rift between their shepherds, Lot parted company from Avraham, and chose to settle in Sodom. Even there, however, he continued to live by the ideals he had learned in our patriarch’s home.
And so when the two men – later, he discovered they were angels – appeared on his doorstep, he did not hesitate to invite them inside, despite the protestations of the townsfolk. It wasn’t easy, the commotion outside grew ever louder. The mob pounded on his door, demanding the blood of the visitors. Lot was undeterred. “Behold, I have two unmarried daughters. I shall let them out. Do unto them as is pleasing in your eyes. But please do not do anything to harm these men who have arrived to take shelter under my roof.”
Does that make any logical sense? On the one hand, Lot was concerned for the safety and welfare of his unfamiliar visitors. On the other hand, he was willing to sacrifice his own flesh-and-blood to the mob outside! What was he thinking?
אֲמַר לֵיהּ רַב נַחְמָן לְדָרוּ עַבְדֵּיהּ: וְאַיְיתִי לִי מַיָּא דְּאַחֵים קַפִּילָא אֲרַמָּאָה. שְׁמַע רַבִּי אַמֵּי וְאִיקְּפַד. אֲמַר רַב יוֹסֵף: מַאי טַעְמָא אִיקְּפַד? דְּאָמַר רַב שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר רַב יִצְחָק אָמַר רַב: כֹּל שֶׁהוּא נֶאֱכָל כְּמוֹת שֶׁהוּא חַי — אֵין בּוֹ מִשּׁוּם בִּשּׁוּלֵי גּוֹיִם. (הוּא) סָבַר אָדָם חָשׁוּב שָׁאנֵי
אדם חשוב שאני - שהרואה אותו שהוא מיקל עומד ומיקל יותר
Rav Nacḥman said to Daru, his servant: Bring me water that a heated by a non-Jew, as the prohibition to eat food cooked by a non-Jew does not apply to water. When Rabbi Ami heard this, he expressed concern. Rav Yosef said: What is the reason for his concern? Indeed, Rav Shmuel bar Rav Yitzcḥak quoted Rav: Anything that may be consumed raw is not subject to the prohibition of bishul akum (food cooked by non-Jews). Since water is commonly drunk unheated, one may drink it even if it was boiled by a non-Jew. Nevertheless, Rabbi Ami felt that an important person is different (and should maintain a higher standard).
Rashi: For one who sees him being lenient will get up and be even more lenient.
Every single one of our actions impacts not only our own spiritual lives but the lives of those around us as well. Just as we have people we look to as our spiritual examples, we all have people who look to us as examples. Most of the time, we’re not even aware of our ‘followers’. And on the flipside, we are often unaware of who we are following. We unconsciously adjust our behaviour based on the actions of those around us. Therefore, the best way to maintain and maximize one’s spiritual success is to situate oneself in an environment of peers who have the same spiritual goals.
Rabbi Yosef Hurwitz (242) discusses the importance of keeping good company. Inevitably, we are all influenced by those around us. Even if you believe you are leading the way and providing positive spiritual leadership to those with whom you keep company, your environment is bound to have an effect on your personal behaviour and outlook. Think about a pet dog, says Rabbi Hurwitz. It walks down the road believing it is leading the way. In fact, if Martians landed, they too would assume the dog was leading its human. After all, which one is in front and which is behind? Of course, as we all know, the owner has the ability to redirect the dog at any moment. Likewise, we may think that we are leading the way amongst our peers, without realizing that we are being directed along a certain path by others who are leading from the rear.
In the Shema, we read, “You shall teach them to your children and speak of them as you sit at home and when you go along the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” Rabbi YN Kornitzer explains that the Torah is demonstrating that our conduct throughout the day serves as a continuous lesson to our ‘children.’ Children, in this context, as Rashi reminds us, does not refer only to biological offspring. Rather, any Torah disciple becomes your spiritual child. The net result of these two teachings is that you are constantly on show with the power to influence your spiritual children.
Lot knew what a charitable and hospitable individual he was. He thought of himself as spiritually head and shoulders above the moral decadence of Sodom. After all, he lived by the values he’d been brought up with in Avraham and Sarah’s home. In many ways, he saw himself as a role model for the people of Sodom. At the same time, however, he didn’t notice that their moral values had slowly seeped into his psyche, to the extent that we look at his actions with shock horror. The lifestyle in Sodom was so ‘normal’ that the irony and hypocrisy of his behaviour was entirely lost on him. And sadly, we need only look to the next chapter to see how such contemptible moral attitudes had affected his children.
We are all products of multiple elements, from nature to nurture to the decisions we’ve made consciously, as well as the heavenly opportunities we’ve been blessed with. One of the most important decisions in life you get to make is the question of environment. Once you’ve made that decision, however, much of what happens is path dependent on that initial choice. Many of the values and patterns of behaviour that you and your family members live by will be dictated by the norms of your social circle. You and your children will observe the actions of those around you, and whether consciously or unconsciously, adjust your behaviour accordingly.
Choose the environment that will provide you with the best chance to live by the values you seek to embody. Once you’ve made the right environmental decision, all subsequent bridges will be much easier to cross. May you forever aspire to values that are consistent in the eyes of your loved ones, your peers, your acquaintances, Hashem, and most importantly, yourself!