There was once a Chassid who lived in a small village far from other Yidden. He frequently traveled to his Rebbe and each time complained terribly about the hardship of living alone, away from a shul and minyan. His Rebbe continuously encouraged him, and based on the specific needs of this Chassid, instructed him to stay in the small village.
One day, the Chassid was visiting the city and, as always, came to see his Rebbe. The Rebbe asked him how he was doing.
“Baruch Hashem, I have finally gotten used to living in the village,” he replied.
“In that case,” rejoined the Rebbe, “you must move to the big city at once! As long as you felt uncomfortable, you were permitted to live there. If you have gotten used to it, then you are in clear danger of being influenced adversely by your surroundings.”
We often fail to recognize the enormous degree to which we are influenced by the company we keep. It is often tempting to assume that our firm conviction and ironclad commitment to our ideals makes us impervious to our surroundings. However, while it may not be discernible immediately, unless we take proactive and considerable measures, over time we are greatly affected by our interactions with those who do not share our moral values.
This week the Torah instructs Bnei Yisrael not to say in their hearts “Because of my righteousness did Hashem bring me to take possession of this land and because of the wickedness of these nations did Hashem drive them away from you” (Devarim 9:4).
In the very next passuk, the Torah continues, “Not because of your righteousness and the uprightness of your heart are you coming to take possession of their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations does Hashem, your G-d, drive them away from before you…”
At first glance the two pesukim appear contradictory. In the first passuk it appears that neither the righteousness of Bnei Yisrael nor the wickedness of the other nations was the reason Bnei Yisrael merited to conquer the land and vanquish the other nations. Yet the second passuk indicates that the wickedness of the nations was at least a partial reason.
Numerous meforshim explain (based on the words of Rashi) the pesukim to mean that it is not a combination of both reasons — the positive attributes of Bnei Yisrael and the evilness of the nations — but, rather, only the wickedness of the nations.
The Chasam Sofer gives another, extremely relevant explanation.
There are some very great tzaddikim who are on such lofty levels of holiness that they simply cannot tolerate being in the presence of an evildoer. After the petirah of Elisha Hanavi, troops from Moav raided Eretz Yisrael. Some people were burying a niftar, and when they saw a Moabite troop approaching, they threw the body into the kever of Elisha. The body rolled over and touched the bones of Elisha, and the man, who apparently was a wicked person, temporarily came back to life and rose to his feet. Chazal (Chullin 7a) explain that the reason for this resuscitation was so that a spiritual giant like Elisha should not rest near a wrongdoer.
Then there are some individuals who, while they are, relatively speaking, considered tzaddikim, are not strong enough to resist the influences of the wrongdoers and will inevitably learn from their ways. Therefore, they must also stay clear of them.
It is only a tzaddik who is on a high enough level of tzidkus to be able to withstand the influences of a wicked man, while at the same time being able to “tolerate” the presence of such individuals, who are permitted to live near them so that the evildoers will learn from the tzaddikim.
In the first passuk, the Torah seeks to tell Bnei Yisrael that the reason Hashem drove the other nations away is not because they are on such a high level of righteousness that they cannot tolerate the wickedness of the nations. Rather, as the second passuk indicates, it is because Hashem knew that Bnei Yisrael did not have the righteousness and uprightness to withstand their influence; therefore, in order to ensure that Bnei Yisrael will not learn from the others, Hashem drove them away.
We cannot begin to understand the greatness of the generation of Bnei Yisrael that merited to enter and conquer Eretz Yisrael. If there was concern about how they would be influenced by their surroundings, how much more must we worry!
At the same time, let us contemplate the fact that the same way the wrong type of company can have a calamitous effect on us, having the right type of company, and basking in the presence of avdei Hashem and tzaddikim, certainly have an enormous influence.