I spent this past Shabbat in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, where I had the opportunity to hear a moving presentation from my friend and colleague Rabbi Steven Lindemann. Temple Beth Sholom was beginning its study of Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors, as is traditional between Passover and Shavuot.
Rabbi Lindemann decided to focus our attention on a particular Mishnah in the first chapter for a couple of reasons. One was that this particular section is attributed to Nittai of Arbel and many people in shul that day had shared the experience of visiting Mt. Arbel in the Galilee. The second reason was the proximity to today, Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The Mishnah reads:
"Distance yourself from a bad neighbor, do not join a wicked person and do not despair from retribution."
The first question Rabbi Lindemann posed was, “Which do you think is more important? Distancing oneself from a bad neighbor or from bad friends? And why?”
One person suggested it was bad friends because one may be tempted to follow their example.
Another offered that it was a bad, or wicked, neighbor because one is in more regular contact with that person and may be subject to their actions or lack thereof.
Another thought it was a bad neighbor because even with bad friends, one has a chance to be a positive influence on him, mitigating his “wickedness.”
It was a lively discussion. And then Rabbi Lindemann shared with the congregation perspectives from our tradition which support the view that it is indeed more important to distance oneself from a “bad neighbor.” He quoted in part from Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the former Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel, and current Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, who has written a modern commentary on Pirkei Avot. Rabbi Lau wrote extensively on the comment of the Mishnah about wicked neighbors and friends.
Perhaps this story from the NewYork Times obituary of Rabbi Herschel Schacter, who was among the first at Buchenwald helps us to understand.
As he passed a mound of corpses, Rabbi Schacter spied a flicker of movement. Drawing closer, he saw a small boy, Prisoner 17030, hiding in terror behind the mound.
“I was afraid of him,” the child would recall long afterward in an interview with The New York Times. “I knew all the uniforms of SS and Gestapo and Wehrmacht, and all of a sudden, a new kind of uniform. I thought, ‘A new kind of enemy.’ ”
With tears streaming down his face, Rabbi Schacter picked the boy up. “What’s your name, my child?” he asked in Yiddish.
“Lulek,” the child replied.
“How old are you?” the rabbi asked.
“What difference does it make?” Lulek, who was 7, said. “I’m older than you, anyway.”
“Why do you think you’re older?” Rabbi Schacter asked, smiling.
“Because you cry and laugh like a child,” Lulek replied. “I haven’t laughed in a long time, and I don’t even cry anymore. So which one of us
Lulek is known today as Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau.
One of the lessons of the Shoah is the impact of bad neighbors. Today, as we remember and mourn our brothers and sisters, it’s crucial that we remember not only what happens when evil people commit evil acts. What we must never forget is what happens when neighbors – ordinary, good people – see evil happening all around them – and don’t say a word.
With thanks to my friend and colleague Rabbi Steven Lindemann, Temple Beth Sholom, Cherry Hill, N.J.