When I was in middle school I had a science teacher with a very strict rule. She said on the first day of school in seventh grade, “Anyone who is caught cheating will fail that assignment. And so will the person sitting next to them.” I remember thinking that that seemed extreme. I do not know if she assumed the neighbor was in on the scheme, or this was supposed to be a deterrent. Regardless, we got the message. If you do something wrong, there is a ripple that affects those around you.
The Mishna states in regards to adjacent stones, some of which are afflicted with plague, “Woe to the wicked, woe to his neighbor/אוי לרשע אוי לשכנו.” Dr. Josh Kulp explains that in addition to purification rituals, “There is also a moral lesson to be derived here. Since the rabbis believe that negaim come as a punishment for the evil tongue, they can add “woe to the neighbor” of such a person. Slander and gossip negatively affect one’s community, and this is ritually symbolized by the requirement that the neighbor of a person affected by a nega must also remove his stones.”
The Midrash goes far enough to say that the reason for the eventual downfall of Datan and Aviram (coming soon, sorry for the spoilers!) is that their position in the camp was next to our Parsha’s villain, Korah. So why did they suffer? Because, as the Midrash quotes, “Woe to the wicked, woe to his neighbor/אוי לרשע אוי לשכנו.”
Many of us are used to hearing the importance of being upstanders and not bystanders. This is a common message that can always use repeating, but it is not new to most of us. We know that if we do not stand up for what is right it will allow what is wrong to flourish around us. But we often see that negative force spread without consequence to ourselves. If I do not stop my friend from spreading gossip, somebody else will get hurt. If I do not stand up for other’s civil rights, then they will continue to be oppressed.
The beauty of this Midrash is that it goes further. If I allow my friends to gossip, something bad actually happens to me. I begin to get swallowed up by evil and I change for the worse. That is why it is “woe to the neighbor.” In a world in which there often seems like too many large things going on around us to stop them on our own, let us start with the little things. Let us gently correct our friends and ask them to not gossip or slander in our presence. This coming week, let us each be the reason that inspires those around us to make the right choices. Blessed are those that do good, blessed is their neighbor.
Rabbi Ezra Balser has been the rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom since July 1, 2016. He received his “smicha” (ordination) in June 2017 from Hebrew College while also earning a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies. He has also received the iCenter's Certification in Israel Education.