“Good Neighbors and Bad Neighbors”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bamidbar, we learn of the configuration of the camps of Israel that surrounded the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, on all four sides.

The Torah extensively details the set-up of the camp of Israel, which, according to tradition, was patterned after the positions of the twelve sons of Jacob when they carried their father’s body for burial from Egypt to Israel.

On the western side of the camp were stationed the tribes of Ephraim, Menashe and Benjamin, with the tribes of Dan, Asher and Naphtali to the north. On the eastern side, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun, while Reuben, Simeon and Gad camped on the south.

Following the Torah’s description of the camp of Israel, the descendants of Moses and Aaron are enumerated, and the Levites are appointed to serve as ministers to G-d, replacing the firstborn. A census of the Levites is then conducted and the Levitic families of Gershon, Kohath and Merari are given their service assignments and duties in the Tabernacle.

The description of the camp locations resumes, and we are informed of the positions of the three Levite families, Moses, Aaron and their families. The Gershonites are to dwell on the west, the Kohathites on the south, the Mararites on the north. Moses, Aaron and their children are to dwell on the east.

Commenting on the verse (Numbers 3:29), “Mish’p’choht b’nei Kahoth ya’cha’noo…tay’mah’nah,” The families of the children of Kohath were encamped…to the south, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) notes that next to the Kohathites was the camp of the tribe of Reuben. Rashi then cites the well-known dictum, “Oy l’rasha, oy lish’chay’noh,” Woe to the wicked one, and woe to his neighbor. That is why, says Rashi, Datan and Abiram of the tribe of Reuben and 250 other men were stricken along with Korach and his assembly, for they were drawn into the dispute by their wicked neighbor, Korach.

On the verse in Numbers 3:38, “V’ha’cho’nim lif’nay ha’mishkan kayd’mah…Moshe, v’Aharon oo’vah’nahv,” Encamped before the Tabernacle to the east…were Moses, Aaron and his sons, Rashi similarly cites the famous dictum, “Tov l’tzaddik, v’tov lish’chay’noh,” It is good for the righteous one, and good for his neighbor. Because the tribes of Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun were neighbors of Moses, Aaron and Aaron’s sons, who were deeply involved in the study of Torah, they were all positively influenced to become great in Torah.

The Gutnick edition of the Chumash notes an interesting distinction between Rashi’s comments regarding the influence of the tribes on one another, and the comments of both the Midrash Tanchumah and the Midrash Rabbah regarding the mutual influence of the tribes.

The Midrash Tanchumah (Bamidbar 12) states: To the south were the descendants of Kohath, and adjacent to them were [the tribes of] Reuben, Simeon and Gad. Due to this, the saying arose, “Woe to the wicked man, and woe to his neighbor!” For these three tribes, who were neighbors of Korach and his congregation, were destroyed along with him as a result of his dispute.

The Midrash Rabbah (Bamidbar 3:12) states: The three [tribes] to the south who were adjacent to quarrelsome people, were destroyed with them. About them it is said, “Woe to the wicked man, and woe to his neighbor.” Who were the quarrelsome people? Korach, the son of Yitzhar, the son of Kohath. Since Reuben, Simeon and Gad were adjacent to them, they were all quarrelsome.

While the comments of Rashi, Midrash Tanchumah and Midrash Rabbah seem to be similar, there are a number of intriguing differences.

Rashi’s comments imply that only a relatively small number of the tribe of Reuben were influenced by Korach (Datan, Abiram and 250 heads of tribes). The Midrash Tanchumah and the Midrash Rabbah assert that Korach’s influence as a “bad neighbor” impacted upon the entire tribe of Reuben as well as the tribes of Simeon and Gad, who dwelt nearby.

The Midrash Tanchumah maintains that having the misfortune of living in close proximity to Korach was the reason that Korach’s neighbors (who apparently did nothing wrong) were punished along with Korach. Rashi, however, argues that by drawing them into his dispute, the evil Korach actually influenced his neighbors to sin, which resulted in their punishment. The Midrash Rabbah suggests that Korach’s influence was even greater, and that Reuben, Simeon and Gad who lived adjacent to Korach were more susceptible to Korach’s negative influence because they themselves were naturally quarrelsome people.

The Gutnick Chumash, citing the Likutei Sichot (volume 33, p. 10ff) of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, explains that there are different ways in which neighbors affect those who live within close proximity.

The Midrash Tanchumah implies that a bad neighbor has no real lasting influence on those who live nearby, but that even good neighbors may suffer by having the bad fortune of living in close proximity when punishment is visited upon the wicked.

The Midrash Rabbah actually maintains that a bad neighbor may trigger already existing bad qualities of those who live nearby, but do not really transform the neighbors.

However, Rashi alone, maintains that a bad neighbor’s influence can actually transform another person’s personality for the worse. Rashi believes that a bad neighbor is only “potentially” a great menace. In fact, it is very unlikely that a bad neighbor could actually succeed in influencing many. Therefore, Korach succeeded in influencing only a relatively small number of the tribe of Reuben–only Datan, Abiram and 250 men.

However, when it comes to influencing for good and positive, we see that Rashi believes that good neighborly influences can actually impact on the masses. He ascribes the success of the tribes of Judah, Issachar and Zebulun, who became great Torah scholars, as being due to living in close proximity to Moses, Aaron and Aaron’s children.

From here we see how important environment is when choosing where to live and establish a home. Even though bad neighbors may have a negligible impact, those who dwell nearby may still be swept away when punishment visits their evil neighbors.

On the other hand, we see how great is the influence of a good neighbor, who can, with very little effort, influence large numbers of people. It is in such “good” environments that we must all aspire to live.

May you be blessed.