This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Isaac. May it be an aliyah for her neshama.
By Elisheva Maline
Social and peer pressure as well as our surrounding environment is something which affects the masses with close to the same certainty as taxes and death. Ironically, today's world preaches, "Listen to your heart," a message which has hindered almost as much as it has aided people in overcoming personal obstacles. How can we develop backbones? How can we learn to think and act on our own terms?
In keeping with the style of the mussar movement, I will answer the question with a question. At an Aish haTorah seminar one of my relatives attended, a Rabbi asked, "What is one word to sum up Judaism?" After several guesses from the audience, he continued, "G-d." My aunt retorted, "Why is that? Why not 'Love'?"
While love is one of the direct results which comes from following the Torah and keeping with its laws, it is not one of its defining factors. At the end of Shir haShirim (Song of Songs) King Solomon offers a succinct explanation, "If she (The Jews) is like a wall, we (the nations) will build turrets of silver upon her. Yet if she is like a door, we will enclose her in wooden boards" (Shir haShirim 8:8). G-d chose us as the nation to keep His Torah, which is a guide of sorts on how to live life to our fullest potential. If we stand like walls for yiddishkeit (Judaism), then there will be guard towers, or silver turrets, to mark the continuity of generations. However, if instead, we are like a door which will open for whomever pleases themselves to enter, then we will be encased in wooden boards which rot and break down over time.
In his commentary on Jewish prayer, the Vilna Gaon (Genius of Vilna) adds that the mark of a wicked person does not necessarily lie in committing crimes like robbery and physical assault. Rather, evil can be found in morally immature minds whose owners' opinions change with the passing breezes of time. When we follow a personal code of values that does not alter with the world's opinions and norms, we will be as walls of stone which can weather any storm. When we do that we pretty much guarantee religious continuity with generations of descendants. Consider people like Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch. He stood for the values of Judaism despite the pressures of German culture and he helped generation of Jews prevail.
One of the main reasons people cave to social pressures is because they are unaware that they are breaking halachah (Jewish law). Regarding the laws of shmirat haloshon, the Chofetz Chaim says that one is not allowed to speak loshon hara, even when under severe pressure from his parents. Not only that, he adds, but if person works in an environment where his boss loves the latest gossip and will more likely than not fire him if he doesn't speak badly about his co-workers etc., the Chofez Chaim says that it is better for him to find another job than lose his sense of humanity.
I'm not advocating for quitting your jobs just yet. But consider the amount of loshon hara which happens on social media venues like Facebook and Twitter. Less than fifty years ago it wasn't so easy to spread slander, loshon hara and general strife. What can we do to stem the madness?