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Torah Attitude: Parashas Nitzavim-Vayeilech: Beware of the social web
This Torah Attitude is dedicated to Sally by Michael on their wedding anniversary. May HASHEM bless all of us with the best that life has to offer.
One should limit one's involvement in derech eretz. It is destructive to sit around idle with no real purpose. Every individual is born into this world for a specific purpose, for the benefit of themselves and the world around them. The Mishnah warns us to choose wisely and not associate ourselves with non-productive people. Many commandments obligate us to socialize with other people at specific times and situations. We must take an interest in our fellow beings and do acts of lovingkindness, in general, and to visit the sick and bury the dead, in particular. Inviting guests has a special importance. It is appropriate that there is no excessive interaction between men and women who are not family members. It is even more important to exhibit extreme caution at one's workplace not to get too close to co-workers of the opposite gender. With the development of the internet, we experience a most dangerous situation where people socialize through the various sites and discuss their personal lives with total strangers. When we go to Shul, or when we are invited by friends, we must make sure that these are positive spiritual experiences.
Limit derech eretz
The last item that the Mishnah enumerates, that one should limit one's involvement in, is derech eretz. This expression is used in reference to different activities. Rashi explains that in this Mishnah it refers to that a person should minimize his association with people who sit around in the marketplace.
Destructive to sit idle
Earlier in Pirkei Avos, we are taught how destructive it is to sit around idle with no real purpose. First, it says (Pirkei Avos 3:3): "Two people who sit together, and do not discuss any words of Torah between them, it is considered a gathering of scorners ". It further says (Pirkei Avos 3:4): "Three people who ate together at one table, and they did not speak any words of Torah, it is as if they ate from offerings to dead idols." Finally, the Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 3:14) teaches that one of the things that removes a person from the world is if he sits at an assembly of ignoramuses. The common denominator for all these situations is that they refer to people who neither spend their time with Torah study, nor do they have a job. These people waste a lot of time and are not productive members of society. The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 34:16) rules that such people are not reliable and cannot be accepted as witnesses in a Jewish court. This includes people who spend their day gambling, or are involved with other games.
Every individual is born into this world for a specific purpose, for the benefit of themselves and the world around them. If someone is neither studying Torah nor holding a job, he is neglecting his purpose for which he is here. Such people eventually become the losers in society, and unless they radically change their ways, they will never be able to acquire Torah. Anyone who socializes with such individuals will inevitably be influenced in a negative way. That is why the Mishnah comes out so strong to show us how destructive such a lifestyle is.
It is important to note that in the Mishnah, that deals with the forty-eight things needed to acquire Torah, it does not say that one may not socialize at all. Rather, it says that limited socializing is one of the requirements needed to acquire Torah. But before we get involved in socializing, Rashi explains that the Mishnah warns us to choose wisely and not associate ourselves with non-productive people.
Commandments to socialize
On the one hand, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a) points out that, unlike all animals that were created as pairs, man was created as an individual. This, says the Talmud, is to teach us the importance of every individual. Nevertheless, the Torah clearly encourages us to be part of a community and interact with other people. Although one can pray on one's own in private, the preferred way to pray is with a minyon in a shul. Similarly, every important event in a person's life involves other people and the proper way to celebrate these events is with a minyon present. Many other commandments also obligate us to socialize with other people at specific times and situations.
Take an interest in fellow beings
In Parashas Yisro, the Torah (Shemos 18:17-23) describes how Moses father-in-law, Yisro, advised him how to be a successful leader and set up a judicial system. Amongst other things, Yisro said, "And you shall let them know the path in which they shall go and the deeds they shall do." The Talmud (Bava Kama 99a) explains that this refers to how to take an interest in our fellow beings and do acts of lovingkindness, in general, and to visit the sick and bury the dead, in particular. Every morning, after saying the blessings over the Torah, we quote the Talmud (Shabbos 127a) that describes various activities. These are activities for which the principal reward is given in the World to Come, while one enjoys the fruit for one's involvement already in this world. This list mentions doing general acts of lovingkindness, as well as inviting guests, visiting the sick, and providing help for needy brides. It further includes honouring a deceased, by accompanying him to his final resting place, and to make peace between friends. All these examples involve interacting and socializing for a specific purpose. By fulfilling these obligations we develop an awareness for other people's needs, whether they are celebrating or mourning, or need assistance in time of distress. This kind of socializing will help us to grow into better people and help us to acquire Torah and its values. Even when we attend a wedding, or other celebrations, we should strive to go for the sake of sharing in the happiness of the groom and bride and their families. Obviously, there is nothing wrong in enjoying an evening out in good company, but our focus should be to show how happy we are for those who are celebrating.
Special importance of inviting guests
The Talmud (Shabbos 127a) teaches us that inviting guests has a special importance. The Torah (Bereishis 18:1-6) relates how Abraham invited three strangers into his tent and looked after their every need. At the beginning of this episode, Abraham said, "My Master, if I find favour in Your eyes, please do not pass away from Your servant." This verse seems to be totally out of context. However, the Talmud explains that G'd had revealed Himself to Abraham prior to the arrival of the three visitors, and when Abraham saw them, he asked G'd to wait until he had attended to the needs of his guests. This teaches us, says the Talmud, that attending to the needs of visitors is greater than having a Divine revelation. This is comparable to someone talking to another person when he suddenly sees the other person's children in need. He apologizes and asks the person to wait, while he takes care of that person's children. Obviously, there is nothing offensive about that. On the contrary, that person will appreciate that his children's needs are taken care off. In the same way, nothing is more pleasing to G'd than when we do what He wants and take an interest in His creations. It is interesting to note that the Talmud (Berachos 10b) teaches that the visitor is not obligated to accept the invitation. The Talmud points out that the Prophet Elisha accepted when he got invited, whereas the Prophet Samuel did not want to benefit from other people. He used to travel around with all his needs and did not accept invitations. Rashi comments that it is neither offensive nor arrogant to conduct oneself in such a way and emulate Samuel.
No excessive interaction
The Talmud (Yevamos 62b) further teaches that a person who loves his neighbours and reaches out to members of his family, about such a person the Prophet Yeshayah (58:9) says, "And you will call out and G'd will answer. You will pray and G'd will say, 'I am here.'" Rabbi Chaim Loewy, the brother of the Maharal, explains that this teaches us the importance of inviting neighbours and friends, from time to time. In this way we honour them and show how much we care about them. He warns that one must make sure that it does not turn into a gathering of light-headedness. This applies especially when couples get together. In such a situation, it is appropriate that there is no excessive interaction between men and women who are not family members. This also applies at social gatherings and celebrations. It is especially important to keep this in mind on Shabbos and Yom Tov, in the halls and outside the Shul, when large numbers of people leave the Shul at the same time. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 529:4) rules that special guards should be dispatched at the time of the Holidays when people are not working and spend time at the parks, to make sure that there is no inappropriate mixing of the genders.
Extreme caution at workplace
It is even more important to exhibit extreme caution at one's workplace not to get too close to co-workers of the opposite gender. It is so easy to fall into the initial stages of a relationship with people one meets on a daily basis. But it is well known that what starts as an innocent friendship often escalates into a full-fledged relationship with dire consequences.
With the development of the internet, we experience a most dangerous situation where people socialize through the various sites and discuss their personal lives with total strangers. Here again, we find that what starts out as seemingly harmless exchanges slowly but surely develops into a mutual attraction. Hundreds, if not thousands of families, worldwide have fallen prey to this web (pun intended) and families have broken up with all the suffering that entails. Our sages (Ketubos 13b) warned us in the strongest of terms when they said that there is no protective guardian when it comes to relationships.
Positive spiritual experiences
As we approach the High Holidays, we must see to that when we go to Shul, or are invited by friends, that these are positive spiritual experiences. These are days of utmost holiness and we must ensure that we do not get dragged into anything inappropriate. We are all looking to improve ourselves so that we will merit a year full of Divine blessings. Our sages have taught us that G'd lets His Divine presence dwell in our midst when we live up to the standard we are taught in the Torah. As it says (Devarim 23:15): "For HASHEM Your G'd walks in the midst of your camp … and your camp must be holy, so that He will not see something inappropriate among you and turn away from behind you." May we all get closer to G'd by following His instructions, and get closer to each other by exhibiting care and concern in an appropriate way. In this merit may we all be inscribed for a healthy year full of G'd's blessings, and may we experience this year the final redemption with the coming of Mashiach. Amen.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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