Social Environment

Nov 26, 2014

Methods for Changing Character

Jewish ethical literature emphasizes the powerful influence our social environment has on our character, behavior, and spiritual lives. Who we associate with is a big factor in determining what kind of people we will become. It follows that one way to change character is to choose a social environment that will strengthen positive values and character traits and stay away from the opposite.

This issue has massive ramifications for many major life choices — where to live and work, where to educate children, who to marry, who to develop friendships with, etc. Of course, multiple factors are part of every major decision, and we here only deal with one topic – how our social environment influences character.

Rav Dessler has a number of strongly worded pieces on the issue of environment in the first volume of Mikhtav M’Eliahu (vol. 1, pp. 153-160). He relates not only to how we are influenced by our surroundings, but how and why we often find the opposite happening. The articles are based on shmuessen given in England and in Bnei Brak.

Influenced by Our Surroundings
Social environment’s heavy moral influence is a common Biblical and Rabbinic theme:

  1. One message of the Lot episode (Breishit 19) is how crucial environmental influences can be for someone with a weak moral consititution. Lot picked up Avraham’s hospitality, yet Sodom also leaves its mark. His daughters married Sodomites (who died in the destruction), his wife turns into a pillar of salt, and the last we meet him in the Torah is drunk, his daughters conceiving from him.
  2. The Divinely mandated wars against the seven Canaanite nations were left unfinished (Book of Shoftim), leaving Israel full of pockets of immoral idolaters. Pagan influences – idolatry, hedonism, immorality — ate away at Jewish culture, eventually leading to the destruction of the first Jewish Commonwealth (Book of Melakhim).
  3. Tehillim begins with, “Happy is he who does not follow the counsel of the wicked, does not stand in the path of the sinners, and does not sit among the scoffers.
  4. The opening chapters of Mishlei caution against associations with negative influences. One typical verse: “My son, do not go in their way, keep your feet from their path” (1:16).
  5. Rabbi Yossi’s answer (Pirkei Avot 2:9) to, “What is the proper path to take in life?” is, “a good neighbor.”
  6. According to the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Deiot 6:1-2), society’s moral influence is a law of nature. “It is man’s nature to be drawn after the character and actions of his friends and companions, and to act like the people of his country.” It follows that one should be as connected as possible to righteous people and avoid negative social influences at all costs. This is also the basis of the positive mitzva to “Cling to Him” (Devarim 10:20). One can cling to G-d by clinging to and becoming influenced by good, righteous people following His ways.
  7. Rav Dessler, in his talks, points out how our surroundings influence our inner selves in very subtle ways. Even watching the punishment of evildoers can have destructive effects. “He who sees a sotah woman in her state of ruin (she was proven to be an adulteress) should take a nazirite vow (forbidden him from wine – an extra precaution against sin)” (Sota 2a).

Despite Our Surroundings
Notwithstanding all of the above, the opposite is often true. We often find individuals who not only resist societal influences but thrive in an environment full of opposing moral influences. This does not detract from a heavily supported default position of finding a supportive moral environment. Here are some of the sources collected by Rav Dessler that illustrate the phenomenon:

  1. Avraham not only came to belief in and service of G-d in a completely hostile idolatrous environment; moving away from the impurity of his surroundings was actually a motivating factor in his development. This is why we mention Terach, Avraham’s idolatrous father, in the Pesach Hagada
  2. Moshe, who became the humblest of men and the greatest of prophets, grew up in the house of Pharaoh, who had made himself a deity and was the source of impurity.
  3. Ruth, ancestor of David and the Mashiach, grew up among the Moabites.
  4. “Let Ovadia who lived between two reshaim (evildoers) (Achav and Izevel) and did not learn from them prophesy about Eisav who lived between two tzaddikim (righteous ones) (Yitzchak and Rivka) and did not learn from them.” (Sanhedrin 39b)
  5. The Mashiach, says the Gemara (Sanhedrin 98a), will only come in a generation that is either totally meritorious or totally culpable. The first is obvious, but the second is strange. Explains Rav Dessler: When that generation who saw the depths of sin repents, they will push away from evil so powerfully that they will rise to the highest heights.

One note: All of the situations listed above do not involve a conscious choice of environment. In all of them, strong personalities with a clear drive for good (or bad) were able to thrive morally (or the opposite for Eisav) despite the surroundings they were thrown into. Rav Dessler’s theory is that it was not despite their environment that they thrived but because of an opposing environment.

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