“The families of the children of Korach would encamp on the side of the Tabernacle, to the south.” – Bamidbar 3:29
Rashi quotes the midrash: “Yissachar and Zevulun became great in Torah because their tents were placed next to the tents of Moshe, Aharon, and his sons. The 250 individuals who joined Korach in his rebellio
n against Hashem, on the other hand, did so because their tents were located next to Korach’s.”
From here Chazal teach, “Praise be a tzaddik, and praise be his neighbors. Woe to the rasha, and woe to his neighbors.”
The midrash seems to attribute both the great success of Yissachar and Zevulun, as well as the utter destruction of Korach’s congregation, to the influence of neighbors.
What makes this statement startling is the distance between the fate of each group. Throughout the generations, the role of Torah teachers was given to Yissachar and the role of supporting Torah went to Zevulun. In this way, they reached the heights of greatness. On the flip side, the people who followed Korach in rebellion against Hashem are depicted as still being punished in gehenom to this day. Yet this midrash seems to be saying that the followers of Yissachar, Zevulun, and Korach all began at the same starting point. The difference was where they dwelled.
It seems difficult to understand how such a stark difference in results could be caused simply by living in close proximity to one person. This question becomes compounded when we take into account the circumstances and the times.
These events were taking place during the forty years in the midbar. Rather than bringing the Jewish people directly to Eretz Yisrael, Hashem cloistered them within the confines of the Clouds of Glory. Locking them away from the world allowed them to become spiritual giants. All of their physical needs were taken care of: they ate the mann delivered to the doors of their tents, they drank water from the be’er, their clothes didn’t tatter and their shoes didn’t wear out. They experienced countless overt miracles.
Further, all the individuals involved had not long before stood at the foot of Har Sinai. When Hashem proclaimed for the entire world to hear, “I am Hashem your G-d,” every man woman and child standing there reached a level of seeing Hashem greater than a navi. They experienced Hashem’s presence first hand.
With that experience came a clear understanding of the purpose of life. The Jews at Sinai fully recognized that we are put on the planet for a few short years with a specific mission to grow, to accomplish, and to shape ourselves into what we will be for eternity. They knew that whatever state of perfection we reach here, we will enjoy forever.
How then is it possible that something as seemingly inconsequential as living next to a tzaddik or a rasha could spell ruination or great success?
The Human: a Social Being
The answer to this question seems to be that we humans are social beings, and because of this we are exquisitely sensitive to influence from others. One of our needs is to belong. We need friendships, we crave associations, and we hunger for a sense of community. When we fit into a group we feel a part of, we identify with that group. This is our chevra, our circle of friends, and it becomes almost an extension of us. Our circle of friends affects our value systems, the way we view ourselves, and our roles in all that we do. But it’s a double-edged sword. It can be one of the greatest aids to a person’s spiritual growth – or the greatest liability.