The Company We Keep

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Rabbi Mendel Breitstein

It is difficult to imagine a more dramatic scene than Aaron versus the Egyptian magicians. Aaron’s staff miraculous transforms into a snake. The Egyptians then follow suit with their staffs, only to have their serpents consumed by Aaron’s! And yet, as powerful as the scene may be, what does it mean?  Is there an underlying idea beyond our Divinity being more powerful than their divinities?

Rabbi Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag) argues that the transformation wrought by the Egyptians differed fundamentally from that of Aaron.  The Egyptians did not fundamentally alter the nature of their rods; Aaron’s rod, in contrast, was changed to the extent that for all intents and purposes it was truly a serpent.   Similarly, in the plague of Blood the Nile’s waters did not simply take on a reddish hue or the like, but were transformed so radically that the fish died. The water’s very essence was changed so that the Nile was now filled with blood.  The differing miracles expressed not just the greater power but the uniqueness of our G-d.

Rabbi Alexander Zusha Friedman in Maayanah shel Torah presents the very different approach of Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin.  Human beings are influenced by their environment. The worst person can find himself changed for the better in the right surroundings, just as the best person can become corrupted in the wrong ones.  The message to Pharaoh, according to Rav Shapiro, was that while the Jews were far from impressive, this could all change were they to be freed from their corrupt Egyptian environment. How is this evident in the miracle?  Etched into the staff was the Divine Name. When it was “before Pharaoh” it became a venomous serpent, but upon its return to Aaron’s[1] hand it reverted to its former, holy nature.

I would venture to add that the change mentioned by Rav Shapiro is at least as fundamental as that described by the Ralbag.  While a staff becoming a serpent is certainly miraculous, a debased person’s becoming honorable is, in its own way, no less miraculous.

What decisions affect this transformation?

The Rambam, in the sixth chapter of Hilchos Deos, goes into great detail describing the influence that our surroundings can have on us. So great is this influence that one must seek a good place in which to live.  Absent the ability to either find or move to such a place, one must isolate him or her self from the neighbors. Should the neighbors not tolerate such isolation, we are told that the neighborhood must be abandoned, even if that means moving to a wilderness. This whole description apparently serves in large part as an introduction to the commandment to cleave to G-d. Since this is fulfilled through a relationship with Torah scholars, from whom one can learn proper conduct, it is critical to stress just how much our behavior is impacted by those with whom we interact.

Perhaps the best advice I received when dating came from a rabbi with whom we’re all familiar. He felt that the single most important criterion was that “you like who you are when you’re with her”. Who we are is, in part, determined by those with whom we choose to associate. While a spouse is the single largest factor in this equation, neighbors, friends, and even acquaintances certainly play a role as well.

In today’s world where, for better or worse, we can invite the entire world into our living room via multiple devices, we make yet further choices concerning our environment and, by extension, who we choose to be. While I think that none of us has sworn off the use of the internet (we are, after all, reading an email or a blogpost right now) we must recognize that our electronic society shapes who we are just as our physical society that help shape who we are. May we all make decisions that help us become the people that we want to be.

 Mendel Breitstein grew up in Maryland (although not in Baltimore or Silver Spring). He learned in Y.U. for quite a few years before learning and teaching in Brookline and Chicago. He currently lives in Bet El with his wife and six rambunctious mascots. In Israel, he has worked primarily teaching English to Charedi men. He has, however, also had the opportunity (thank Gd!) to teach Torah for an online college and do some cartooning on the side.

[1] In truth, the citation reads משה של ידו אל בחזרו אלים-למטה שוב הופך נחש ואותו. However, given that Aaron was the direct participant in the events, I’m not entirely certain why he mentions Moses, unless the idea here is that Aaron is acting as his agent. Even so, the language of משה של ידו seems difficult. Perhaps it’s a printer’s error.


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