Nittai the Arbelite used to say: keep a distance from an evil neighbor, do not become attached to the wicked, and do not abandon faith in retribution.
Many of the messages in Pirkei Avot concern our social relationships. In previous essays, we have elaborated on the importance of good role models, performing acts of kindness, and maintaining good friendships. Nittai of Arbel changes the emphasis from the benefits of positive relationships to the dangers of being negatively influenced by our social environment. In the Laws of Human Dispositions (6:1), Rambam writes that “It is a natural tendency of man to be influenced in his ideas and conduct by his fellows and associates, and to follow the usage of the people of his state.” As a consequence, he recommends that one should keep the company of the righteous, and pertinent to the current mishna, “and to distance himself from the evil-doers who follow the path of darkness, in order not to learn from their conduct.”
As confirmed by the psychological literature, the social norms and behaviors of those directly around us, and the cultural norms more broadly, strongly influence us. Some theorists go so far to assume that our entire sense of self is really only known or developed through our comparison with others, often even unconsciously. We eat more, often without realizing it, when we are around people who eat more and we make purchases similar to those around us. People who associate with smokers or drinkers, smoke or drink more themselves. This isn’t just about peer pressure, compliance, or obedience; the social proximity effect indicates that we naturally pick up on the habits of our peers. Similarly, through a process known as emotional contagion, those around us influence our emotions leading us to unconsciously mimic their mood.
The overall message of this mishna seems to be one of social caution. If we want to learn and maintain good behavior, we need to stay away from any people that can inhibit that growth. Distancing from an evil neighbor and from a bad friend serves a dual function: 1) not to learn from their behavior, 2) and to protect ourselves from getting harmed by them. Therefore, the third clause tells us “Do not despair from retribution,” which can be understood as encouraging us not to be overly confident in our ability to protect ourselves from negative social influences.
Associating with people of dubious morality naturally leads to unhealthy consequences. Some commentaries focus on the problem of associating with those who may be derelict in religious rituals (Machzor Vitri), while others focus on the problems of associating with those who are morally corrupt (Rashbatz). Rabbi Israel Lipschitz focuses on problematic personality traits: stay away from those who are angry, arrogant, and envious, not only to avoid learning from them, but not to be harmed by them. Noting the mishna’s distinction between evil neighbors and wicked people more generally, Meiri recommends that not only should we not live permanently next to bad influences, but we should avoid associating with them even in more transient settings.
The last clause “do not abandon faith in retribution” has several possible interpretations. As mentioned, one possible explanation repeats the caution of the first two phrases: beware of retribution from evil neighbors and wicked people. Rabbi Yosef Yavetz argues that we have a natural tendency towards evil. Consequently, even if we stay away from evil neighbors and wicked people, we should still be vigilant regarding our own predilection towards sin. Relatedly, Rabbeinu Bechaye reads this third clause as a warning for a healthy sense of shame: we should be afraid of the consequences of sinning so that we will be more cautious before behaving inappropriately. Others see the message as a broader suggestion: if we foresee bad things coming in the future, we should prepare to confront them appropriately (Machzor Vitri). Unrealistic optimism does not always lead to positive results. However, this idea shouldn’t lead to unhealthy fear or anxiety. Maharal points out that the mishna doesn’t say “be afraid,” but suggests a vigilant mindset, rather than a fearful one.
Other commentaries read the ending more optimistically. Do not despair of retribution means, do not despair if you experience retribution. No matter how bad things get externally, there is always hope the situation can improve (Rabbi Yosef Nachmias), and no matter how many sins we may have committed, there is always hope that we can repent and do better in the future (Rabbi Moshe Almosnino).