Affected by the Environment
Whether we realize it or not, our environment - the people and things around us - makes a big impact upon who we are. It's human nature to adopt the values and behavior of the people we're around. In this week's Torah portion, a misguided man named Korach tried to start up a rebellion against Moses as the Jewish people were traveling in the wilderness. Although he was wrong, he was able to influence a lot of people to follow him. Most of these were from the Tribe of Reuben, who lived in the camp next to the rebellious Korach. We learn from here the importance of staying close to people who have values we want to emulate, and to keep our distance from those who don't.
In our story, two friends learn about how they are affected by their environment.
Steven and Craig were walking out of the Camp Chattanooga dining hall. Lunch had been the usual filling if unexciting fare and the boys were looking forward to the hour rest period to recharge them for the afternoon activities ahead. They hadn't gotten too far when they heard someone whistle in their direction. Looking up they saw Stan, the camp troublemaker, coming their way.
"Hey guys. What's up?" he asked, as he spit some gum he had been chewing onto the path, just a few feet from the nearby trash can. "Me and a couple of my buddies are gonna take some canoes out onto the lake now. We even got permission. Wanna come?"
The two friends look at each other. "I say we keep away," whispered Craig. "If Stan and his crowd is involved, it could only mean trouble."
But Steve disagreed. "What's the problem? Just because we're going canoeing with them doesn't mean we have to act like them."
Craig shrugged. "You go if you want. But I'm going back to the bunk," he said, as he went on his way.
"Count me in," said Steve, as he turned to join Stan heading down to the lake.
The boys grabbed the canoes and paddled out into the shiny blue-green waters. Steve was having fun. "This is great!" he thought. Suddenly he heard a loud splash followed by wild laughter. Quickly he turned his head and saw that Stan had dived out of his canoe into the middle of the lake. "Whoa," thought Steve. "We're not allowed to do that. The counselor had told us how dangerous it was."
But soon one splash followed another until all the boys except Steve had jumped out of their canoes. The boy felt left out. At first he stayed put, but then when he saw that everyone seemed to be having so much fun, he also jumped out of the canoe. Just then the supervising counselor pulled up in a rowboat and started yelling at everyone jumping in the water. Turns out that besides tipping the canoes, the boys didn't even get permission to go out in the canoes in the first place!
As the counselor gathered the boys into his rowboat, he noticed Steven. "This is a surprise. I would never have expected you to act this way," he said with a frown.
Steven bowed his head in shame. All of the boys, including Steven, lost their swimming and boating privileges for a whole, hot week.
Later that day when his friend Craig came back from swimming, Steven told him the whole story. "You were right," he said. "Somehow just being with those guys made me lose my head. From now on I'm going to stay with the right crowd and keep my head above water."
Q. How did Steven feel when Stan invited him to go along in the canoe trip?
A. He felt excited and sure that even if the other boys didn't behave properly, he would.
Q. How did he feel after the counselor pulled him out of the water?
A. Steven felt ashamed for what he had done and realized that being around people who misbehaved could really cause him to misbehave too.
Q. Do you think Steven would have jumped out of the canoe if he had been out on his own or with his other friends? If not, why did he do it this time?
A. Steven would not have jumped out of the canoe under other circumstances. He knew that it was wrong. This time, Steven was influenced by the values of Stan and his friends and started to act like them. There's a real pull to adopt the values of those around them.
Q. What can a person do to avoid being dragged down by the negative values and behavior of the people around him?
A. Just being aware that he is susceptible to their influence is a step in the right direction. It will help him to stay strong and not be affected. Ultimately, however it is very worthwhile to make every effort to keep a safe distance from people whose behavior isn't right and draw close to people with healthy values.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. If someone acts wrongly because he was influenced by his environment, would you say that he is responsible for his actions?
A. One unique feature of a human being is his power of free choice. This means that in any given situation, God gives us the ability to choose whether to act according to healthy proper values or not. While someone in a difficult environment does have more of a challenge to overcome its influences, nevertheless he can, and should. In the end, he is responsible for his actions.
Q. Is there anything a person in a negative environment can do to change his surroudings and have a positive impact on the people around him?
A. Ironically, one of the most effective things one can do to change his society for the better is to change himself for the better. Just as one is influenced by his environment, he influences it as well. Each human being is a spiritual powerhouse whose every positive decision to act with proper values can literally make the world a better place.