Our environment has a big impact on our lives

I always imagined I’d be the same person I was outside of yeshiva as I was in yeshiva. Of course, yeshiva is a hotbed of religious passion and zeal, a place where one’s highest aspiration is to become as the great Torah teachers and sages who surround you.
The beit midrash (study hall) is filled throughout the day and much of the night with both the young and the old hunched over ancient, sacred tomes, plumbing their depths and delighting in new Torah discoveries. It wasn’t difficult to get caught up in the spirit of the place. On the contrary, one had to essentially and willfully remove oneself from the spiritual gusto to avoid being swept up in its wings.
Of course, I didn’t realize at that time just how much of my own religious devotion and iron-willed Torah-study focus was a product of living in that rarefied, supportive environment. I, like others, regarded my essential “self” and my value system as essentially one and the same; wherever I’d go my core tenets and commitments would surely follow.
And so, I surmised, if daily exertion in Torah study and fastidious attention to Jewish practice lay at my spirit’s ideological core, no circumstances that life outside of yeshiva might throw my way could, in any meaningful way, derail my life’s determined course.
I look back at my younger self now and realize how very naive I truly was.
Little did I know at the time just how much of my 26-year-old self would leave the larger yeshiva bubble along with me, fully intact, and how much of what I thought of as myself remained in reality as a free agent, susceptible and impressionable to outside influence and pressure (such was the case, even as I was solely transitioning to a spiritual “safe-space” in communal Jewish education).
Life in my new, smaller learning environs was an adjustment to say the least. It’s simply not as easy to remain as motivated in a beit midrash filled with eight people instead of a couple of hundred. And the sheer intellectual and spiritual “competition” (what the Talmud refers to as kinat soferim — the spiritually beneficial jealousy of the wise) that permeates and animates the yeshiva student in yeshiva — well, that was now mostly a thing of the past. It was a path of least resistance to find comfort in one’s newfound status as a learned person in this smaller enclave and to forget just how recently one had been sitting near the base of the totem pole of Jewish knowledge back in yeshiva. And that allowed for the slow setting in of spiritual stagnation and plateau.
This new environment would bring with it challenges to the religious life that I didn’t know existed and certainly wasn’t prepared for. A new set of tactics, I would quickly discern, would be needed to meet this new spiritual test head-on if I were to take the advancements I had acquired during my yeshiva years along with me into my second act.
Humans are deeply impacted by their environments and social circles. This much is well documented in both the social sciences as well as our own tradition. Pirkei Avot, for example, exhorts us on the one hand to “let your home be a meeting place for the wise; dust yourself in the soil of their feet, and drink thirstily of their words” (1:4), and, on the other side, to “distance yourself from an evil neighbor and do not befriend the wicked person” (1:7). We human beings, after all, are ever-malleable in our natures, both for the good and the bad.
Maimonides, too, eloquently noted, “It is natural for a man’s character and actions to be influenced by his friends and associates and for him to follow the local norms of behavior. Therefore, he should associate with the righteous and be constantly in the company of the wise, so as to learn from their deeds. Conversely, he should keep away from the wicked who walk in darkness, so as not to learn from their deeds….”
Stuck in a place where you can’t escape negative influences? Maimonides suggests you “go out to caves, thickets, and deserts [rather than] follow the paths of sinners…” (De’ot 6:1). In such a degenerate society, returning Homo sapiens’ habitation to caves suddenly seems a great feat of human advancement.
And so, even as motivational speaker Jim Rohn may not have had humanity’s spiritual and ethical characters in mind when he uttered his now-famous words, “You are the average of the five people you most associate with,” we certainly ought to.
It was only recently, though, while studying the weekly parasha, that I fully realized the utter extent of the impact that one’s environment has upon the individual.
It had been a long, 22-year period of estrangement since Yaakov had last seen his embittered brother Esav. And last Yaakov knew, Esav was still out for his blood for stealthily wresting away his birthright blessing from their aged and blind father. What could Yaakov say or do these many years later to appease or disarm a bloodthirsty Esav and hope to escape this fateful meeting with his life and the lives of his family?
The text records that Yaakov devised a plan. He split up his children into their maternal groupings, each one a distance from the other, ensuring the survival of at least some of them in case of a military attack. He prepared long lines of lavish gifts for his brother, the better to soften a long-hardened heart. And finally, he commanded his servants ahead of him to share his carefully prepared words — words which on a surface level seem utterly unremarkable and flat.
“Thus shall you say to my master to Esav, ‘Thus said your servant Jacob, “I have sojourned (‘garti’) with Lavan, and I have lingered until now”’” (Beresheet 32:5).
Yaakov had indeed lingered these many years with Lavan, his wicked father-in-law. He had diligently tended his father-in-law’s flock day and night, and in return earned the right to marry his two daughters, Leah and Rachel, and acquire a sizable portion of livestock for himself.
But Rashi is more concerned with the hidden layers of meaning behind Yaakov’s words. The word “garti” (“sojourned”), notes Rashi, has the same numerical value as “taryag” (613). In other words, Yaakov’s words to Esav could equally be read, “(Know that) I have kept the 613 commandments while in Lavan’s house.”
This short and effective line was a warning shot.
For Yaakov was letting Esav know that God and His protective wings were still spread over him. Yes, it is true that he had been living in the shadow of a wicked man for over two decades, but no, he had not adopted his father-in-law’s evil ways along the way and subsequently fallen out of God’s graces. “I wouldn’t mess with me if you know what’s good for you!” was Yaakov’s subtle yet pointed intent.
What I find amazing, and that which I had never satisfactorily considered in the meaning of Rashi’s commentary, is the clear implication that Esav considered it a real and ever-present possibility that Yaakov, the crown jewel of the Forefathers, the one whom the Torah describes as “the dweller of tents” (a reference to his constant presence in the house of study) and the husband to two of our saintly Matriarchs, might have lost his spiritual way due to those years lived in close proximity to a wicked man.
And Yaakov, in seeming agreement as to the possibility of such a personally calamitous eventuality, feels the need to dispel those considerations!
What the Torah is teaching us is that nobody — no matter who you are, what family you come from or what you’ve accomplished in your lifetime — is immune from the forces of their environment. If Yaakov Avinu is at risk, so are we all.
How vigilant must we then be in guarding against the negative influences of the societies in which we live and how equally determined we must be to find and secure spiritually and ethically rich friends, communities and environs in which to spend most of our time. As long as we don’t imagine ourselves more powerful than the forces around us, we can, at a minimum, do our part to stack the decks of influence in our favor.
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the outreach director of DATA of Plano. He can be reached at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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