There’s a unique spiritual illness mentioned in last week’s Parsha as well as this week’s. It has physical manifestations similar to leprosy. Back in Biblical times, a person got it when speaking senseless gossip or unconstructive derogatory speech about another person-even if it was true. The Torah requires a person stricken by it to dwell outside of the Jewish camp; the stones of his house are scraped away and disposed of outside the city.
Why does the house need to be destroyed; it it is an inanimate object, what did it do wrong?
In Jewish consciousness there’s an idea that a person’s actions have influence upon his or her surroundings. If a person is honest, kind, trustworthy, and other positive traits, his or her environs are uplifted, but if (s)he deceives people, causes rifts in friendships, or does other negative things, those surroundings are negatively affected. This idea has another aspect too. People are influenced by their environments. Noah’s generation became so wicked that they corrupted the entire world, leaving G-d with no choice but to destroy it and begin again anew.
In the case of the house, its owner so grossly misused his power of speech that it permeated the very walls and foundation of the home, rendering it impure to its core. It is, so to speak, as if the house has become transformed into a place with the potential to corrupt even pure and innocent people who enter its doors. As a result, just as in the times of Noah, there is no choice but to seal it off to prevent any further damage from occurring.
Each of us is responsible for making sure we place ourselves in a good environment and that we also continuously work to maintain it. Maimonides (1135-1204) actually codifies this idea in his magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah:
It is the inherent nature of a person (lit., ‘it is the way of a person’s creation’) to be drawn, both in one’s attitudes and deeds, after his or her friends and associates, and to act in the manner of the inhabitants of their country. Therefore, a person is obligated to befriend the righteous and to constantly be in the presence of the wise in order that he learn from their acts. One should [likewise] distance oneself from the wicked who go in darkness in order that (s)he not learn from their ways. As Solomon stated, ‘[One who] walks with the wise will become wise, and one who befriends fools will suffer harm’ (Proverbs 13:20). It also states, ‘Fortunate is the person who did not walk in the counsel of the wicked, [and in the way of sins (s)he did not stand, and in the sessions of the scorners (s)he did not sit]’ (Psalms 1:1).
One of the verses (used above that) Rambam uses to buttress his point is from Proverbs. “One who walks with the wise will become wise, and one who befriends fools will suffer harm.” When speaking about connecting to wise people, the verb used is “walks,” because one must be humble around one from whom (s)he can learn and walk with or even behind them. However, when it comes to fools, the verb used is “befriends,” because one can immediately be the equal and friend of a fool, whereas befriending a wise person is a privilege and must be earned. Wisdom is hard to attain but it’s easy to become a fool.
The Midrash uses the metaphor of a perfumery. One who associates with wise people is like one who enters a perfumery. Even if (s)he doesn’t buy anything, a pleasant scent will cling to their clothes when they go outside. So, too, one who hangs around wise people will hear valuable insights that might change his or her life. Even if you can’t participate in the conversation, the mere associating with wise people will make you a wiser person. Not everyone can be wise but all of us can stand to be wiser than we are now.
Where do you get your wisdom? We spend time doing recreational activities such as watching sports, listening to music, working out, hiking, and other enjoyable pastimes. They help us relax and jump off the treadmill of life but is it a source of wisdom for us? Most people understand the importance of taking time off to relax but few understand the need to take time out to get wise and find answers to questions like, “what truly beings happiness to my life?” “Am I able to put aside the smaller pleasure for a bigger pleasure?” “Have I identified wise people in my life? How often do I associate with them?” “How have I changed for the good in the last ten years?”
These are important questions to ask ourselves. In addition, we need to become friendly with people who ask similar questions. We all have potential but it is those rare few who actualize it. The best way to do so is to be wise and surround yourself with wise people.
(Sources: Beis HaLevi; Rambam De’ot 6:1; Yalkut Shimoni quoted in Artscroll Tanach Series Mishlei v. 1 p. 240)
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