Your Influence In The World

Art by Peter Kiss

In this week’s Torah portion Matot Mas’ei, there’s a very interesting verse that can instruct us all in how to lead our lives today.
 
The verse is Numbers 32:22, and just before it Moses says: do this and do that and if you do, you will... and here’s the verse: “Be clear or guiltless before God and before the people of Israel (i.e., your neighbors).”
 
And the rabbis ask — why not just say be guiltless before G!D? Who cares about what other people think?
 
And there’s something to that idea. We tell our children: Be yourself! Don’t give in to peer pressure. Live your truth. Even if the majority culture believes this, we are Jews, so we believe and behave differently.
 
Why should we care what other people think of us when we know we are in the right?
 
We should note that being guiltless before God is mentioned first; it is most important.
 
But we humans are social animals by nature; we live in communities. Even during this time of isolation, when we recognize how much we aren’t together, we are still very much influenced by what others are doing.
 
The idea of being mindful of how one’s actions are perceived is called: Marit Ayin or in Ashkenazi pronunciation Morris Ayin. In rabbinical school, we actually would use this name for fun — Mr. Morris Ayin did this or that.
 
The late Chief Rabbi of England, Rabbi Hertz, explained this concept as follows: It is not enough that your conscience is clear. You should strive to make your outward actions irreproachable and above suspicion. You should avoid doing things that appear wrong.
 
This is why an observant or Orthodox Jew will likely not go into McDonalds, even to get a diet coke. Because of Marit Ayin — how it will look to others. And not just that others might think she is violating the laws of kashrut by eating in a McDonalds, but also because another observant Jew might see her in there and say “Oh, maybe this McDonald’s is kosher and I can eat here.”
 
It’s an awareness not only of how things will appear to others that might affect your reputation, but also how your actions might influence others or be misinterpreted by them giving them permission to do something they otherwise would not.
 
For example, in the Talmud, there is an instance where the Rabbis council a man who tells them he can’t control his urge to have illicit sex with a prostitute. They tell him to try a particular activity to combat his urge. When that doesn’t work, they give him another suggestion, and when that doesn’t work, another suggestion.
 
Finally, they essentially say if you can’t control yourself, get dressed all in black and go to another town where no one knows you and go commit your sin there.
 
To a modern ear, this sounds totally hypocritical— hide your identity and go somewhere where they don’t know you so you can do your dirty deed.
 
But when you think about it more carefully, it seems like a wise compromise. The man clearly couldn’t control his urge so there were two options — do it where people know you and might be influenced by your behavior or do it somewhere else where you wouldn’t be an influential factor, where at least you’d be more anonymous.
 
And the rabbis say this not because they condone the behavior — they clearly tried to help the man overcome his urge multiple times. The reality was either he does it where he might influence others (and of course embarrass his family if anyone were to see or find out) or he does it where he will have less influence in affecting the behavior and feelings of others.
 
In short, the Rabbis recognize and take into account the obvious: we all influence other people. Clearly those closest to us in relationship are the most influenced by us and as we go farther afield, we have less and less influence (unless of course we are a public figure, in which case we have enormous influence on people we don’t even know personally).
 
As a Jew (if you are) and as a representative of the Divine (which we all are), we stand for something. Whether we like it or not. Whether we want to shoulder that burden or not. We still stand for something even if we don’t want to.
 
Some people will continue to claim “It’s my life. I’m free to do what I want. When I do X or don’t do Y, I’m not telling you what to do.” But that’s just self-justification for not wanting to be accountable for one’s actions.
 
There’s a great midrash that illustrates this point perfectly: The midrash tells the story of passengers on a boat. In the middle of the voyage, one passenger opens his bag and takes out an old fashioned hand-drill. The other passengers become alarmed as he puts the drill against the floor under his seat and begins to make a hole in the bottom of the boat.
 
In fear and astonishment, they plead with him, “Stop! What are you doing?” The man is surprised by their objections. He calmly states, “What business is it of yours? Why should you care? I’m only drilling under my own seat. I have no intention of drilling under yours.” The other passengers frantically reply, “The seat might only be yours, but the water will rise up to drown us all!” [Leviticus Rabbah 4:6]
 
Of course, everyone knows that a hole drilled under one seat would sink the whole boat, which is why this story of the man with the drill is a metaphor.
 
It teaches that we tend to believe that we have the right to do what we want as long as it does not directly affect others. Often, though, we are unaware of, or choose to ignore, how private actions can have public consequences. Our simplistic approach toward our rights, believing that we can behave as we wish without considering the consequences for others, can lead to terrible error and destruction for everyone.
 
The story reminds us that nothing we do is really completely separated from others. Figuratively speaking, we are all in the same boat.
 
So how do we respond to the person who does not see how his/her actions affect others? I suppose we could yell at such people. We could tell them how selfish they are being. We could try to make them feel badly.
 
That might make us feel good for the moment, but, that too, is just another form of drilling under our own seat. It’s just another way of insisting on doing things our way, while ignoring the needs of another person.
 
The Torah teaches us that we should reprove a person we see doing something wrong, but the rabbis teach that you shouldn’t give tochacha or reproof to someone who is highly likely not listen to it because ultimately that will only strengthen their behavior out of defensiveness.
 
Instead, you should speak from a place of concern or caring for them and for yourself. In that way, hopefully, and perhaps over time, the other person will feel that your request comes from a place of caring, perhaps even love, and thus be heard in a positive manner.
 
Each of us teaches and instructs and influences in everything we do. Whether we want to or not.
 
So all we need to decide at each moment is-- how intentional do we want to be in how we teach and instruct and influence others?
 
What is the message you want to teach tonight? What is the instruction or role modeling you will be giving tomorrow? And how will you influence your neighbors the next day?
 
Every moment of your life you teach. And even in your death — how you die, what you do or don’t say to those around you-- you will still be teaching.
 
Whether you want to or not, you and I are always teaching and influencing others. So what will your message be?

Shabbat Shalom