The organization of Machaneh Yisrael forged and created bonds and alliances between various constituents of Klal Yisrael that shaped the future spiritual development of those sectors. The juxtaposition of tribes and families next to one another and the friendships that resulted from that proximity played an influential role in molding the spiritual character of various segments of Klal Yisrael. The Pesukim inform us that the family of Kehat camped along the southern edge of the Mishkan (Bemidbar 3:29). The tribes of Reuven, Shimon, and Gad dwelled along the southern perimeter of the camp, neighboring the family of Kehat (2:10). Moshe, Aharon, and their respective families resided along the eastern side of the Mishkan (3:38), while the tribes of Yehudah, Yissachar, and Zevulun camped along the neighboring eastern perimeter. The bonds of neighborly friendship that were fostered between these tribes proved to be destructive in one instance and productive in the other. Rashi, citing the Midrash Tanchuma, quotes the well known aphorisms, “Oy LaRasha VeOy LeShcheino” and “Tov LaTzaddik VeTov LeShcheino.” The partnership between Korach and his following with Dattan, Aviram and the two hundred and fifty members of the tribe of Reuven led to the latter half’s demise. On the other hand, the influence of Moshe and Aharon propelled the members of the tribes of Yehudah, Yissachar, and Zevulun to ascend and excel in Torah scholarship.
The influence and persuasion of one’s surrounding environment is one factor that helps chart the trajectory of one’s spiritual growth and development. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (1:7) cites the instructions of Nitai HaArbeili to “Distance oneself from a Shachein Ra (bad neighbor),” and to avoid befriending a wicked individual. The Rambam, in his Peirush HaMishnayot, explains that an individual is prone to adopt and to inculcate the repugnant ways of a spiritually and morally corrupt society. One should distance oneself from a degenerative society in order to avoid the harmful and injurious effects of living in such an environment.
The inherent danger of being enveloped in a spiritually and morally corrupt society lies not only in the long term ill effects of that society on the individual, but additionally in the immediate connection and association with degenerate partners. Avot DeRabbi Natan (30:3) records the saying of Rabbi Akiva that one should not cling to violators of Torah since punishment will be inescapable even if one never mimics their ways. Conversely, one should cling to practitioners of Mitzvot since reward will be forthcoming even if one never adopts their practices. The Meiri (Commentary on Avot 1:7) explains that the very bond of friendship that is fostered with these individuals is itself punishable in the former instance and laudable in the latter case. Irrespective of the long term repercussions of such alliances, the decision alone to associate and align oneself with a particular group or individual is significant and revealing. Alternatively, even if a decision to partner with and befriend a certain individual isn’t itself flawed or worthy of praise, one’s inclusion within a particular group might necessitate and carry with it a degree of responsibility by one’s mere representation within the group. Rabbeinu Yonah (Commentary on Avot 1:7) claims that by dint of one’s membership within a particular society one obtains a degree of shared responsibility for both the Mitzvot and Aveirot performed by that same group.
The opportunity for religious growth and the danger of spiritual regression should be a weighty factor in our decision making regarding community, Shuls, schools, and friendships. As well, the responsibility to contribute toward and help shape and elevate one’s surrounding environment should be carefully considered and sought after.