Good Neighbors

“Distance yourself from a bad neighbor.”

Ethics of the Fathers 1:7


A police officer approached two men hanging out in a public space in the middle of the night. He approached the first guy: “What are you doing here?


He turned his attention the other fellow: “And what are you doing here?”

“I’m helping him.”


We tend to do what the people around us do. It’s human nature. The sages of old recognized this and had a saying: “Woe to the wicked. Woe to his neighbor. How wonderful is the righteous person. How lucky for his neighbor” [BT Yoma 56b]. The decision of where to situate ourselves physically in a community is not random or coincidental. We make social choices everyday. Alice Roosevelt Longworth did. She famously said, “If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.”


Alice probably has a lot of company.


In his TED talk, “The Hidden Influence of Social Networks,” Dr. Nicholas Christakis talks about the tendency of like-minded people to cluster with each other and influence each other in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. With James Fowler, he studied the mathematical, social, biological and psychological rules and patterns in networks and offered some stunning examples of the impact of our homogeneous clustering: “…if your friends are obese, your risk of obesity is 45 percent higher…if your friend’s friends are obese, your risk of obesity is 25 percent higher…if your friend’s friend’s friend  - someone you probably don’t even know – is obese, your risk of obesity is 10 percent higher. And it’s only when you get to your friend’s friend’s friend’s friend that there’s no longer a relationship between that person’s body size and your own body size.”


Who would have thought that moving might help with weight loss?


In analyzing the reasons for this striking phenomenon Christakis suggests three possibilities: 1) obesity spreads from one person to the other in a causal fashion, 2) homophily – we gravitate to others who are like ourselves, and 3) confounding – we are not causing each other’s weight gain but share a common exposure to a factor that influences us both. We both happen to live walking distance to a bakery.


The Bible devotes many verses to the importance of picking the people you’re with and choosing well because we all operate “under the influence.” We are also told the importance of being good neighbors to attract good neighbors. Proverbs offers a few suggestions:

“Seldom step foot in your neighbor’s house – too much of you, and they will hate you,” [25:17].


“If a person loudly blesses his neighbor early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse,” [27:14].


“A person who lacks judgment ridicules his neighbor, but a person of understanding holds his tongue” [11:12].


Give space. Be quiet at off-hours and zip the lip.


We live in the proximity of others. Our communities usually determine the norms, values and boundaries of our lives. Our social contract with others may never be articulated, but it’s virtually always present: in the decisions we make, in the social capital we invest, in the way we think, behave, vote and spend our leisure time. No wonder we are told to love our neighbor as ourselves. If we pick the neighborhood carefully, this won’t be very difficult.


Do you live in a neighborhood that helps you be a better person? Do something today that shows you’re a good neighbor.


Shabbat Shalom