In this week's parshah, the Torah tells us that someone who serves an idol is punished by public stoning. Interestingly, the pasuk states that the witnesses of the crime MUST be involved in the execution. Not only that, they also have to be the very FIRST people to throw the stones (17:7).
Stoning someone, no matter how guilty he may be, must be quite a bone-chilling experience. Why in the world is it necessary for the witnesses of the crime to be involved in the execution of the sinner, and why must they be the very ones to begin the stoning process?
The following two accounts will lend important insight and help us answer our question:
- The story is told about a student of Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan (known as the Chofetz Chaim) who came to him with a seemingly mundane question. This young man was considering a banking position and wanted to know whether he should accept the role of cashing checks or the role of accepting deposits. The Chofetz Chaim strongly encouraged him to occupy the place that was cashing checks, reasoning that if he would be receiving money daily over decades, it would misshape his personality into a taker; but if he would be handing out money, he would be more inclined to become a giver. “Nothing”, concluded the Chofetz Chaim, “is more impressionable than a human being. Who you are, as well as who you will become, is directly decided by what you do and by what you allow yourself to be exposed to”.
- Daniel Goleman, of The New York Times, reported the following:
Abuse, whether physical or verbal, is a terrible reality. Abusers become so incredibly callous to the feelings of others that they can act in horrible ways without even feeling that what they are doing is wrong. Researchers wondered - how could a healthy human being stoop to such lows, and not even realize that he is acting in such a traumatizing manner? Strangely, a recent study found a surprising fact: One-third of all abusers were themselves abused at some point in their own lives. Apparently, many of the very people who were once a victim of such treatment eventually accepted it as “normal”. We can learn from here that even when we KNOW that something is wrong, when we are exposed to something repeatedly we are often doomed to imitate it, if not immediately, then sometime down the road. Scary, but true.
We can learn from these two accounts a powerful truth: We are EASILY influenced. Often, we may find ourselves with a bad friend or in a bad environment. Our human nature is to assume that we are completely "bulletproof", and that if we don't agree with the wrong things which we see or hear, we won't be harmed or affected whatsoever by witnessing them. The Torah is informing us otherwise. The sin that the Torah is discussing in our parshah is an extreme one: a Jew serving an idol. Those who witnessed this heinous act would probably assume that witnessing the sin had no influence on them whatsoever. After all, they went straight to court to attest that this evil person is guilty and deserving of the death penalty. Clearly, they have remained pristine and were not affected by what they saw. The Torah vehemently disagrees. In fact, Hashem is telling us that these witnesses were so affected by what they saw that "hands-on therapy" is needed and absolutely critical. Not only must they watch this wicked man's public death, they have to be the ones to literary begin the stoning process with their very own hands. A concrete action is necessary to counteract the sin which they witnessed and to "cleanse" them from the powerful influence that this rasha (wicked person), unbeknownst to them, had on their inner character.
We are much more susceptible to external influences than we may suspect. Take a look at Super Bowl ads for instance. This year, the cost of advertising reached up to a record high of $5 million per 30-second spot. That price doesn't include the cost of actually creating the ad, the publicity around the ad, and other aspects necessary to create a successful Super Bowl ad campaign. In total, one source said that a big-game advertising campaign can cost more than $30 million. Let’s think about this. Highly successful and intelligent companies are willing to pay up to $5 million for the opportunity to show you their product for a mere 30 seconds. Now, people may think that there is no way that 30 seconds can influence them. Yet, each year the majority of these companies advertise AGAIN. Apparently, their sales actually SKYROCKET each year that they show their short advertisement. Clearly, we are much more susceptible to external influences than we may think, if not in the short-term then certainly over the long-term, as the multi-billion dollar advertising market clearly attests.
We all like to rationalize that we are unaffected by what we see and hear, but unfortunately it’s just not true. Research continues to find that experiences mold a person's nature and values. Everything that we witness has a profound impact on us and our souls, as our parshah illustrates, whether we like it or not. Therefore, we all have a responsibility to be careful with what and whom we choose to expose ourselves to. Additionally, we have a responsibility to be careful with how we influence others. Ultimately, we can and do influence what our friends, family, and children value.
R' Shamshon Raphael Hirsch writes that we must be so careful not to be "murderers of shame". He elaborates by explaining that the very first time someone hears foul language, they feel uncomfortable. An inner voice tells them that something is wrong. This is due to their soul's natural pure state of innocence. The more that they choose to expose themselves to that language, however, the more that feeling of shame dies down - until it disappears completely. Man is given a strong inner sense of what is right and wrong, and what is pure and what is impure. However, we have the choice to either strengthen that awareness, or utterly “murder” it. Keeping ourselves pristine, as well as protecting our inner compass which tells us what is truly good and what is bad, is a priceless tool if we want to succeed spiritually.
“Al ta’amin b’atzmicha ad yom moscha” - “Do not trust yourself until the day of your death” (Avos 2:5). We are easily influenced by what we see and hear. This Elul, may we succeed in removing ourselves from all traces of negative and sinful influences and in guarding our souls with vigilance, thereby enabling our truly good selves* to emerge and develop into greatness.
*- In Tehilim it states “turn from evil and pursue good” (Psalm 34). The Sages expound on this verse as follows: we all have an intrinsic desire to be good people. Our main obstacle in fulfilling that desire is bad influences and actions, which inhibits and hinders this natural desire. Therefore, the first step to success in becoming good and pure is to “turn from evil”, ie. remove yourself from all evil influences. Only then, can one truly “pursue [becoming] good”.