pirkei avot 1:7 - Building and Maintaining a Good Environment

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah                                                               for her neshama.
By Elisheva Maline

Nattai of Arbela would say, "Put distance between yourself and an evil neighbor, do not befriend a wicked person and do not abandon belief in retribution (as in, do not despair that the sinner will not experience the consequences of his actions)."

Survival means being surrounded by that which will provide a means of sustenance. For plants and animals, little more than what nature has to offer is needed, namely, food and shelter. A plant will lengthen and flower with time if it is surrounded by the care that sunlight, water and carbon dioxide provide it. The animal which moves from place to place will flourish if its current habitat offers it its basic needs, namely, a place to rest, raise its young and to eat. 

For human beings, functioning physically is not enough. We need to feed our mental, emotional and spiritual capacities as well. When Nattai of Arbela would say, "Put distance between yourself and a bad neighbor," he meant, "Find yourself an environment conducive to your growth process." If that means that you want to lose weight, join a gym. Or if you decide that you want to learn more about Leonardo da vinci, visit the Louvre (and if you can't, get a copy of Dan Brown's The da vinci code). If you're hungry for fine cuisine, sign up for culinary school (or take notes on Julia Child's cooking). Once someone knows where he desires growth, his hunting for the specific environment becomes a piece of cake. He wants to be a chef so he's going to look for the right fit. 

You have already found yourself a good setting. You got accepted to an Ivy League or you just got into the learning at yeshiva (college for Torah scholars). Suddenly, a distraction enters your life. Judaism calls this diversion the yetzar hara (literally translated the Evil Will). He arrives on the scene for no better reason than to stop us in our tracks. He might take the form of laziness, depression, or a sudden temptation to go on a bender

An interference with progress and growth, Nattai of Arbela says, "Do not befriend an evil person!" Moreover, do not imagine that just being in the same environment as this person will not affect you. In the book of Numbers, chapter 16, the infamous argument between Korah and his cohorts vs. Moshe took place. The placement of Korah's tribe, the Leviites, bordered the encampment of the tribe of Reuven. For this reason, many people from Reuven's tribe got sucked into Korah's circle and eventually met the same tragic end as the original upstarts. The Torah emphasizes an important lesson here, "אוי לרשע, אוי לשכנה." "Woe to the wicked man and woe to his neighbor." People did not label the tribe of Reuven wicked like they might have condemned Korah. However, by association, they were dragged into the muck of controversy. People are natural absorbers of their environment; they will conform to some degree. Of course, if you want to help this person and he is receptive to your advice, there is what to work with. If he meets your well meaning with derision and scorn, though, the relationship will end with you getting hurt. Therefore, "Do not befriend the evil person."

Last but not least, once you've established yourself in the field of your choice, do not regret the hard work, the sweat by which you accomplished, if you catch someone in the act of cheating. Nattai of Arbela says, "Do not abandon belief in retribution." Also, the famous question Moshe, our nation's leader asked G-d was, "Why do good things happen to bad people and vise versa?" Hashem answered, "You were not given eyes to understand the big picture in this world.  G-d runs the world.

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