Television, radio, advertising, movies, the Internet, newspapers, magazines, all reflect and create the culture we live in. Our emotions, opinions, and behaviors are all dependent on the culture we are part of, and our choices are dependent on whatever is the status quo of our emotions, opinions and our behaviors. The result of this, is that, sometimes the options of change, and the choice of better behaviors, is usually not on our radar screen, and not something we are aware of, without a daily dose of Mussar, to learn better options. (See Rambam Madah 6 1)
This is why, when G-d judges us, He takes into account the culture of the world we live in. I noticed this during Mussaf on Rosh Hashana prayers. When asking G-d to remember us for good, in Zichronot, we mention how G-d remembered Noach, and calmed the Flood. Why do we mention G-d’s remembering Noach, if he was not from the Jewish Nation? The answer, on the bottom of my Kavanat Halev Machzor is, that although Noach was not worthy to be saved from the Flood in his own merit, for he did not believe 100% that the Flood would happen, for he did not go into the Ark until the waters reached his ankles (M. Rabbah), still G-d had mercy on him, and judged him favorably. For relatively to the people of his day, Noach was righteous. So we mention this in Mussaf Rosh Hashana, to be some sort of disclaimer, that relatively to the people that we live amongst, please G-d, have mercy upon us in Judgement.
This is why, probably the biggest choice you make in life, is, the choice of people you associate with. You see, most choices we make in life, that we focus on, are choices of what and how. What we can do more of, what we can do less of. How we can do it better or different. But we rarely focus on and ask ourselves questions of who. Who your friends are, who your Rabbi is, who you want as your employer, or who you want to employ. But the who, is the usually the biggest choice in the game of life. Andrew Carnegie, once said, “Take away my people, but leave my factories and soon grass will grow on the factory floors…Take away my factories, but leave my people and soon we will have a new and better factory.” For Andrew knew, that his who has more value than his what. And, many times, the what and the how, is many times, not in the locus of our control. Most of the time, the only control we have, is the who. Bear with me.
I have coached a number of boys from religious backgrounds, religious families, that have started to become less religious. It has happened many times, where these boys ask me for help, how they can overcome their inclination, and not fall worse than they have already fallen. Now, I know that they have this negative pattern going. They have bad friends, who go to town, and do bad stuff. Once the boy is in the place of the test, there is not much that can save him. So I found that the following has helped.
“I don’t think that G-d will punish you for sin, once you are there. You do not have much choice, once you are there. Once you are all dressed up, with the wrong friends, in the wrong places, there is not much stopping you…מה יעשה הבן ולא יחטא”
The boy relaxes, What? I won’t get punished for sin, for I have no control? I like how that sounds!
Then I throw the curveball. “But you will get punished severely for associating yourself with friends who are going to those places! That you can choose, now! And if you just choose this one choice, to leave those friends, G-d will never forget it! He will not only reward you, He will even reward your great, great, grandchildren!!” Allow me to explain.
We just read on Yom Kippur, the story of Yonah the prophet. Yonah did everything he could, even “run away from G-d” just so that he will not successfully prophecies to the people of Ninveh, who would end up doing Teshuvah. Because Yonah felt that if the non Jews of Ninveh do Teshuvah while the Jews who receive prophecy to repent, don’t, this will be a kitrug, a prosecuting claim against the Jews. But G-d did not allow Yonah to dodge this responsibility.
The Midrash asks, why Ninveh, out of all the gentile nations, deserve this VIP message from G-d, before G-d annihilates them? Other nations did not get this “warning” before G-d brought His wrath on them. If they were sinners, G-d would get rid of them like any other city of sinners before them or after them. Why did G-d give Ninveh another chance, and force a Jewish prophet to go out of his way, and out of Israel, to warn them?
The Midrash Aggadah, on our Parasha answers the question. מִן־הָאָ֥רֶץ הַהִ֖וא יָצָ֣א אַשּׁ֑וּר וַיִּ֙בֶן֙ אֶת־נִ֣ינְוֵ֔ה Ninveh was the son of Ashur. Ashur lived in the time of Nimrod, in the time when Nimrod, king of the world, rebelled against G-d by building a big city, Babylon, with a big tower, to fight G-d. But Ashur ran away, and built a city for his son Ninveh. And because he acted this way, and did not want to take part of the anti G-d project on Nimrod and Babylon, that is why when Ninveh’s descendants sinned, many, many, years later, G-d said to Yonah that he should go and prophesize to them, and give them a last chance. G-d said, Your forefather went out from his land in My honor, that is why My prophet, Yonah, will need to go out of his land to give you a last chance.
This one act, which was not even a mitzvah, just an act of social awareness was so respected by G-d, that G-d remembered it for them, so many years later. Always in life, we only have that one next step, that we can choose, and G-d will reward us, for making the right choice. And usually that next step, is getting a different who.
For some reason, people can’t stop doing what they want to stop doing. It is not a choice that is given to them. But there is a powerful choice, that they still have, that can change the game. To create a new culture for ourselves, by associating ourselves only with people who are doing the things that we want to do. I will never forget the person who I coached for weight loss. Nothing seemed to work. So I challenged the client to give up dieting. And instead, focus on the who. Do not let your spouse do the shopping, and bring into your house foods that are not good for you. And join a social group, with the right emotions, behaviors and opinions, that is focused on the diet that seemed to work best out of all diets. B”h, the weight got under control within a short period of time. Because the who means more than the what.
Many people feel, leaving Yom Kippur, that all the spiritual work goes to waste, when they don’t keep up to the standards that they wished they were on, after holiday season is over. But G-d does not forget your growth, your change, and your inspiration. He even remembers it for your grandchildren, long after you are gone. And if you want to keep your growth, you will need to focus on building a new culture for yourself. And join a G-d serving culture…