Hishtavut & Pirkei Avot 1:7

One who comes to purify herself, heaven helps herthe Sages

On Ethics Of Our Fathers, from Evil Friend, Holy Foe:

Nitai the Arbelite would say: Distance yourself from a bad neighbor, and do not cleave to a wicked person. – Ethics of our Fathers, 1:7

On the surface, Nitai the Arbelite appears to be conveying a simple, if redundant, message: Stay away from bad people. In truth, however, a much deeper lesson is implicit in his words. In fact, a close examination of his phraseology yields an altogether different sentiment.

What is the difference between a “bad neighbor” and a “wicked person”? And why must one go so far as to “distance oneself” from the former, while, concerning the latter it is enough to avoid “cleaving” to him?

A “bad neighbor” means just that: not a bad person, but one whose proximity to yourself is detrimental to you. It may be that he is a righteous person, and that his path in life is, for him, most suitable and desirable; but if for you it is wrong and destructive, keep your distance.

On the other hand, a “wicked person” is not necessarily a bad neighbor if he is not in the position to influence you. From him you need not, and must not, distance yourself: on the contrary, befriend him, draw him close and help him improve himself, all the while taking care not to cleave to him and emulate his ways.

In other words: The evil in another is never cause for your rejection of him—only your susceptibility to what is evil for you. On the contrary, the “wickedness” of your fellow it is all the more a reason to become involved with him, and prevail upon him to cleave to the positive in yourself.

The keyword here is susceptibility. The keyphrase is susceptibility to what is evil for you.

Not everyone is a “blank slate” or a completely permeable membrane, able to be equally influenced by all “idea sets” without any discretionary power at all. We are naturally and easily influenced by that to which our souls align. This “natural influence” becomes more evident as we correct ourselves, and less evident when our emotions and mind are corrupted by error.

We can be unnaturally influenced and further corrupted by “that which is evil for us” through “bad” or “good” methods. In other words, we can be influenced toward accepting falsehood through both painful and pleasurable means. Two respective examples would be social rejection and social acceptance.

Against this, human beings are able to establish emotional and intellectual boundaries for themselves, which when fully developed, leads to acquisition of the quality of hishtavut (equanimity). In my understanding, hishtavut is that quality through which one allows herself to be selectively influenced by truth, despite the presence of both truth and untruth in the environment.

In other words, one with hishtavut is easily influenced by what is true, and with equal ease is able to reject the influence of untruth, whether it (untruth) is in a “good” or “bad” package. This is hishtavut. The emunah of one with hishtavut can stand up unshakable against the untruth in any environment.


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