Nittai of Arbela said: Keep far distant from a bad neighbor; do not associate with a wicked man;… Pirkei Avot, Perek I, mishnah 7. Joshua ben P'rahyah cautioned us to think twice before judging someone to be bad. Now Nittai of Arbela examines a more realistic aspect of the situation. In life we will encounter people who are bad, unquestionably bad, bad beyond a shadow of a doubt. When you discover that your neighbor is wicked, keep far away from him. The effect of evil association is often fatal. What the Mishnah is rejecting is the naïve idealism which refuses to believe that there are really bad people, and the naïve optimism that even if some are momentarily wicked, we can soon improve them. When the proximity of evil affects you directly in your personal, emotional life, then discretion is the better policy: put a distance between yourself and your evil neighbor. The sacrifice may be great. The Talmud knows we need "either fellowship or death" (T.B. Ta'anith 23a). Man is a social being who cannot get along without friends, without society and good fellowship. Yet the price could be too high to pay, even for fellowship, for it may require an unprincipled life, and existence without Torah. Better no friends at all than to associate with the wicked. Indeed, we are clearly warned: "Do not associate with the wicked even to learn Torah" (Avoth d'Rabbi Nathan, A9). Judaism was always very sensitive to the powerful influence of environment. As the Midrash explains, when Korah organized his rebellious campaign against Moses, Dothan and Abiram joined him [this and following verses] because they were his neighbors: the Tribe of Reuben camped near the Levite branch of Korah's grandfather Kohath. And the Midrash sums it up tersely: "Woe betides the wicked, and woe his neighbor; [but] good attends the tzaddik, the righteous, and good attends his neighbor" (Midrash Tanhuma, Korah 4, ed. Buber 8). In other passages the Midrash declares that Lot was saved from Sodom because he was related to Abraham--"fortunate are the righteous, and fortunate are those who are attached to them" (Midrash Tanhuma, Vayyera 9); conversely, 250 perished with Korah only because they joined him (Numbers 16:2, 17, 35): "Woe betides the wicked, and woe those who attach to them" (Midrash Tanhuma cited in Yalkut Shim'oni II, §§ 291, 550). Man is a highly imitative creature. He absorbs from his environment the values and behavior patterns of those about him, and in his ways he tends to conform to them. ... Purity travels with greater ease then sanctity. It is much more difficult to transmit k'dushah [holiness-AJL]than tum'ah [impurity-AJL]. If you associate with the wicked, the chances of their defiling you are greater than the possibility of your reforming them.
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