No one lives in a vacuum. No, that doesn’t mean we didn’t get sucked up through a vacuum cleaner hose in the pre-Pesach cleaning frenzy, it means that whether we like it or not, our environment—the people and things around us—makes a big impact on who we are. When Korach tried to start up his misguided rebellion against Moshe, most of the people he influenced to follow him were from Shevet Reuvain, who lived closest to him. It’s human nature to mirror the values and behavior of the people we’re around, so we should try to stay close to people who have values we admire and want to emulate, and to keep our distance from those who don’t.
In our story, a couple of friends learn how their environment affects them.
Shua and Yitz were walking out of the Camp Keff dining hall. Lunch had been the usual fill of unexciting fare and the boys were looking forward to the hour rest period to recharge them for the afternoon activities ahead. They hadn’t gotten too far when they heard someone whistle in their direction. Looking up they saw Mort, the camp troublemaker coming their way.
“Hey guys. What’s up?” he asked, as he spit some gum he had been chewing onto the path, just a few feet from the nearby trash can. “Me and a couple of my buddies are gonna take some canoes out onto the lake now. We even got permission,” he smirked. Wanna come?”
The two friends look at each other. “I say we keep away,” whispered Yitz. “If Mort and his crowd is involved, it can only mean trouble.”
Shua disagreed. “What’s the problem? Just because we’re going canoeing with them doesn’t mean we have to act like them.”
Yitz shook his head and shrugged. “Uh, uh. You go if you want. I’m going back to the bunk,” he said, going on his way.
“Count me in,” said Shua, as he turned to join Mort heading down to the lake.
The boys grabbed the canoes and paddled out into the sparkling waters. Shua was having fun. “This is great!” he thought. Suddenly he heard a loud splash followed by wild laughter. Quickly he turned his head and saw that Mort had dived out of his canoe into the middle of the lake. “Whoa,” thought Shua. “We’re definitely not allowed to do that. The water counselor had told us how dangerous it was.”
But one splash followed another until all the boys—except for Shua—had jumped out of their canoes. The boy felt left out. At first he stayed put, but then when he saw that everyone seemed to be having so much fun, he also jumped out of the canoe. Just then the supervising counselor pulled up in a rowboat and started yelling at everyone. Turns out that besides tipping the canoes, Mort hadn’t even really gotten permission to go out in them in the first place!
As the counselor gathered the boys into his rowboat, he noticed Shua. “This is a surprise. I would never have expected you to act this way,” he said with a frown.
Shua bowed his head in shame. All of the kids, including Shua, lost their swimming and boating privileges for a whole, hot week.
Later that day when his friend Yitz came back from swimming, Shua told him the whole story. “You were right,” he said. “Somehow just being with those guys made me lose my head. From now on I’m going to stay with the right crowd and keep my head above water.”
Q. How did Shua feel when Mort invited him to go along in the canoe trip?
A. He felt excited and sure that even if the other boys didn’t behave properly, he would.
Q. How did he feel after the counselor pulled him out of the water?
A. He felt ashamed for what he had done and realized that just being around people who misbehaved could really cause him to misbehave too.
Q. Do you think Shua would have jumped out of the canoe if he’d been out on his own or with his other friends? If not, why did he do it this time?
A. Shua wouldn’t have jumped out of the canoe under other circumstances. He knew it was wrong. This time, he was influenced by the values of Mort and his friends and started to act like them. There’s a real pull on a person to adopt the values of those around them.
Q. What can someone do to avoid being dragged down by the negative values and behavior of the people around him?
A. Just being aware that he is susceptible to their influence is a step in the right direction. It will help him stay strong and not be affected. Still, it’s very worthwhile to make every effort to keep a safe distance from people whose behavior isn’t right and choose friends with healthy values.
Age 10 and up
Q. If someone acts wrongly because his environment influenced him, would you say that he’s responsible for his actions?
A. One unique feature of a human being is his bechira, his power of free choice. This means that in any given situation, Hashem gives us the ability to choose whether to act according to healthy proper values or not. While someone in a difficult environment does have more of a challenge to overcome its influences, nevertheless, in the end, he is responsible for his actions.
Q. Is there anything a person who finds himself in a negative environment can do to have a positive impact on the people around him?
A. Ironically, one of the most effective things a person can do to change his society for the better is to change himself for the better. Just as one is influenced by his environment, he influences it as well. Each human being is a spiritual powerhouse whose every positive decision to act with proper values can literally make the world a better place.
About the Author: Nesanel Yoel Safran is a published writer and yeshiva cook. He has been studying Torah for the last 25 years, and lives in Israel with his family.
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