Parshas Behar Bechukosai – Living Among the Best
But the main lesson is prime.
It emphasizes the importance of surrounding yourself with the right kind of people and placing yourself in the right kind of environment.
The Rambam mentions this as a fact of human nature.
Polishing a Shmutzy Soul
Initially, I found myself in a predominantly modern Orthodox community, where they have absorbed a lot more of the surrounding culture.
Nonetheless, I still found myself on the wrong side of social norms at times.
Fortunately, people were mostly nice. The modern Orthodox girls my age mostly flowed with me, understanding where I was coming from and that any blips weren't intentional.
But I still picked up on a good-natured smile or laugh over something I did or said. An awkward or embarrassed or a “Let’s all pretend we didn’t notice what she just said or did…dum de dum de dum…” pause in the conversation.
Sometimes, someone even chose to confront me directly—in a very friendly, understand, and gentle way.
And it was really good.
Yes, it was uncomfortable at times. Yes, I got fed up with the friction of something acceptable or even admired in secular society being looked down on in frum society.
But it was really good because I needed to change.
Later, I went for my year in Israel among the dati-leumi, and then later, I attended a charedi seminary for baalot teshuvah. There, they could explain a lot of stuff and what was acceptable, what wasn’t, and WHY.
Despite propaganda (and a few wonky examples) to the contrary, many frum people are much more patient, understanding, and tolerant than anyone else (in the reverse situation).
Why "Just Kidding!" Still isn't Okay
In the secular American society of my childhood, it was perfectly acceptable to complain about your child while your child was standing right there—as long as you did so in a joking manner, of course.
I saw this repeatedly and never thought anything of it because it was so normal.
It was like how you get zits on your face or braces or other uncomfortable aspects of youth. Not pleasant, but normal and not much to do about it anyway, except get through it and outgrow it.
(FYI: Contrary to halacha, you can get away with a lot of nasty, abusive, hurtful behavior in America as long as you are “just kidding!” or insert just the right smiley emoticon at the end of your onslaught. All the more so, with behavior like the above which is “merely” uncomfortable or "somewhat" embarrassing.)
Anyway, people did this regularly to their children, include their teens, putting them in an awkward situation where they either needed to just take the humiliation and public lashon hara—which is hard to do gracefully.
Some teens just smiled ruefully. Others looked unhappy (at which point adults labeled them “sullen” or “hormonal”). And less often, the teens got angry or talked back in some way or stormed off, at which point the adults labeled them as “having a bad attitude” or suffering from “hormones” or whatever.
In contrast, I quickly learned that with many charedi mothers, complaining anywhere near your child—even a 2-year-old & even if you’re joking—is met with discomfort. Furthermore, complaining about your young child (even jokingly) in a group situation (like at the park) even when your child is out of earshot, is not acceptable either.
The truth is that many secular Israeli mothers also display caution with how they speak about and around their children.
Yes, charedi mothers might complain generally about how difficult bedtime is or how hard it is to clean up, but they won’t get specific about one child—not in a group situation. Privately between friends? Yes. Maybe. It depends. But in a group? No.
And they are absolutely right.
Why should you ruin your child’s reputation?
Why do you need to publicize their issues or anything they might find embarrassing later?
Children have a right to change, mature, and outgrow problematic behaviors—just like adults do.
And why should anyone have stuck in their mind any particularly unpleasant behaviors your child engaged in at the age of 5?
There’s an unconscious influence, whether anyone wants it or not.
Getting Comfortable with Good Influences
Some people are more refined, work on their middot more, dress & behave with more dignity, are more careful about lashon hara, cultivate a sense of humor about life (without jeering and sarcasm), and so on.
And if you can handle the initial discomfort if you aren’t yet like them, then you can find yourself changing for the better almost automatically.
And if you are already like them, then sticking together will reinforce & strengthen your goodness. (Plus, there is safety in numbers.)
Finally, it’s important to remember that humbling experiences are better for us than we usually realize.
Growth is rarely comfortable.
But it is definitely worth it.
What's Stopping You from Making Real Change?