How to Survive in Babylon by Jonathan Levine

Posted on June 5, 2013


The following idea is a reflection of my experiences at a non-Jewish private school for the past four years, and advice on how to keep Judaism strong among adversity:

The opening line of Parshat Korach mentions several specific names.  First, Korach is named, as he is the main culprit of the story in the Parsha.  However, these other two men, Datan and Aviram are mentioned right after him.  The catch is, the Torah specifically says that Korach took himself away from the congregation, where as regarding these other two men, there is no action or verb associated with the mentioning of their names.  It just states: “And Datan and Aviram.”  Rashi asks the obvious question: Why is Korach’s name associated with the action of taking, while the other two men’s names are without an action altogether.   Rashi quotes the Gemara, and recalls a strange expression, saying:  “Woe to the wicked, and woe to his neighbor.”  For Datan and Aviram lived in the neighboring tribe over from where Korach lived.  Since Korach was evil, and an evil action was associated to his name, then obviously these two men, who were his neighbors, have the same evil association, because, “woe to the wicked, and woe to his neighbor.”
When I read that answer, I had difficulty seeing its validity in the modern world.   Is Rashi telling us that if we ever live near a wicked person, or are put in a morally dangerous environment, that we will ultimately be considered “evil?”  Is Yeshiva University the only appropriate place for an Orthodox Jew to receive a college education outside of Israel?  Is a respected Rabbi in charge of Kiruv (outreach) at a university automatically branded to be as immoral as the college students he is teaching?  Is Rav Shlomo (Of Blessed Memory) wicked, because he lived in an immoral era of San Francisco?

There must be another way to approach this.  I just recently graduated from a non-Jewish high school, filled with drinking, partying, drugs, sex, etc. – you name it.  However, I do not feel as if that identifies anything I stand for, nor will it ever.  You see, “woe to the wicked, and woe to his neighbor” is not referring to physically being located near a bad person.  In order to be associated with the wicked, you must first identify yourself as his neighbor.  I have spent day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year, with these people, but I am not their neighbor.  I have an emotional, moral and spiritual, boundary from them.  Although I am physically their neighbor, I will never be associated with them.
I think that this is the only way for an Orthodox Jew to survive in a secular environment.  He/She must go with the conscious decision to not become neighbors with the wrong people.  For if you do not actively decide that you will not become their neighbor, then you will be included and associated with their actions.  It is a dangerous place, this Babylon is.  Make sure to find real neighbors.  Only when we create this moral and spiritual neighborhood, and find our true neighbors, will we be able to create our real neighborhood in Jerusalem, hopefully not too far in the future.

Amen, Shabbat Shalom.