By: Rabbi Mendy Wolf
In life, we are bombarded by attempts to influence our ideas, choices, lifestyles, beliefs, and spending habits. With pop-ups, advertisements, and news headlines all over, how can we get a handle on these messages, controlling what will or will not affect us?
This leads us to an interesting scientific question. Why is it that a rock, impervious as it may seem, if exposed to dripping water over a long period of time, will eventually succumb? The water will penetrate the stone, creating dents in its surface. Have you ever wondered what would happen to, say, a donkey, if water were to fall onto it consistently?
The answer is actually rather simple, but the lesson it imparts is quite profound:
Water can penetrate anything – even a rock. But a donkey, or any other animal for that matter, upon getting wet, will immediately shake off the drops. Water is powerful, but a living creature can avoid its influence. So too, outside influences can only affect us if we are open to it, not if we shake them off.
This concept is very much related to the relationship of neighbors. This week’s Torah portion, Va’eschanan, discusses many laws concerning neighbors, mainly in the area of property issues. But neighbors are much more than just people living nearby, with whom we must contend.
The Sages made a rather important distinction as far as neighbors: They can either influence us positively or negatively. “Fortunate is the righteous one, and fortunate is his neighbor,” they declared. “Woe is to the corrupt one, and woe is to his neighbor.”
Their intention, of course, was that in searching for a home, one would be well advised to examine the community in which he would be living. The attitudes, priorities and lifestyles of those around him would likely affect his. Yet the above statement is rather puzzling, to the point of seeming self-contradictory. How can it work both ways equally – that an upstanding individual inspires those around him, and a decadent one pulls them down? What if a saint were to settle near a criminal? Who would then influence whom?
It depends on who is the rock and who is the donkey.
Neighbors are like water. Their influence can be very potent – but only if one is open to it. Each neighbor is equally capable of affecting the other; the outcome of their proximity depends on who is open to being influenced and who rejects it.
We are surrounded by many types of people at home, in the workplace, and everywhere we go. Some may uphold values we aspire to, and others may seek to undermine them. The result of these interactions is in our hands. Will we grow or regress? Will we encourage or discourage? Will we affect or be affected? Who will be whose neighbor?
Rabbi Mendy Wolf is the educational director for the Institute of American & Talmudic Law, and the director for Project Life, an organization which promotes Jewish values throughout the business community in NYC. R’ Mendy is a sought after teacher and lecturer and resides in Brooklyn, NY with his wife and family. Contact Rabbi Mendy to book him to speak or with feedback at email@example.com.