Good Decisions, Good Neighbors

Woe to the wicked person and woe to his neighbor
— BT Sukkah 56b

A friend recently shared an article from the World Economic Forum website about good decision making: A Neuroscientist Who Studies Decision-making Reveals the Most Important Choice You Can Make. Dr. Moran Cerf, a professor of neuroscience at Northwestern University, has been studying the subject and its relationship to happiness for over ten years. Turns out the best way to make a good decision is to have the right friends. The company you keep and seek out will be the best guarantors that future decisions will be good ones, if you have good friends, that is.

This happens for a very important reason. Decision-making is exhausting, especially when we have so many choices and so many decisions to make in the course of a day. Because of the psychic toll and the biases that cloud our judgment, we often defer to the decisions of those around us, so the company you keep matters. Pick your friends and pick your neighbors carefully.

I know what you're thinking. You can pick your friends. You can't pick your neighbors. But you can pick your neighborhood. Cerf's research demonstrates that when two people are in each other's presence, their brain waves look nearly identical. When I read this, I committed to standing near only very kind, very smart people. Seriously, Cerf stresses that because of this alignment, if you want to diminish stress in your life and enhance happiness, surround yourself with people you respect since your choices will likely come to resemble theirs. Spend less time making decisions and more time finding good friends and neighbors.

"Distance yourself from a bad neighbor; don't befriend a wicked person" warns Ethics of the Fathers (1:7) Because you cannot be Jewish alone, the Torah warns against behaviors that make people bad neighbors. For example, communities gossip. Gossip protects values by singling out those who flaunt or break rules or challenge norms. Thus Leviticus states: "You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the Lord. "You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord" (19:16-18). When we live in close proximity to people, we talk about them; we harbor bad feelings. We hold grudges. Try, the text prods, to love your neighbor as yourself. It's hard, but it's easier if we pick our neighborhoods thoughtfully.

The prophet Zechariah moves from the legal boundaries to sensible advice on how to be a good neighbor: "These are the things that you shall do: "Speak the truth to one another; render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace" (8:16). Proverbs recommends generosity of spirit if you want to be a good neighbor: "Do not say to your neighbor, 'Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it,' when you have it with you" (3:28). Simply put, don't be nasty, vindictive or irritating as a neighbor. Jeremiah suggest that this kind of neighbor will come with costs: "Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and does not give him his wages" (22:3)

In his commentary to Genesis 9:2, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes an interesting linguistic connection between the Hebrew infinitive to dwell "SH-K-N" and the word for neighbor, which has the same root. It "means both to dwell, and also to be a neighbor. Therein lies the highest social ideal. In Jewish thought, to dwell means to be a neighbor. When a Jew takes a place on earth to be his dwelling place he must at the same time concede space and domain to his fellow men for a similar dwelling place."

We dwell together, and as neuroscience is now telling us, that closeness may be more important than we realize. People often move into neighborhoods because of the housing, but perhaps the choice of house is not as important as who lives in the houses nearby. That goes for your locker, your cubicle, and your office. Isaiah gets the final word, "My people will abide in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places" (32:18).

Shabbat Shalom

A Friend in Need

“At the sight of misfortune you take fright…”

Job 6:21


American humorist Arnold H. Glasow once said, “A true friend never gets in your way unless you happen to be going down.” This begs the sensitive question of how to get in the way when your friend is on the way down. For our purposes, going down can be interpreted in two ways: 1) the friend in question spirals downward morally or emotionally and needs to get back on track, 2) the friend is suffering from loss, confusion or both and seeks answers and companionship.

 Some people shy away from others in need, even close friends. They may tell themselves it is none of their business or act as if help would be offensive. This may be true, but it may not. It may be an excuse masked in fear. We don’t like seeing other people’s vulnerabilities. “It’s too hard for me.” Really? Seeing friends who are depressed or under the shadow of addiction or marital crisis reminds us often of our own weaknesses and anxieties. But friendship is cyclical, and friends do cycle out of relationships when they feel betrayed or neglected at times of need. Maimonides speaks at length of the importance of rebuking a friend who has lost his or her way but privately and tenderly so that the friend understands your interest is out of love and commitment. You care. You are invested.

 The second circumstance can be more nuanced and difficult: being a friend to someone who is suffering not because of his or her own doing but out of tragic circumstances. We want to be present but don’t always know how to be present. Does the person want to be left alone or is loneliness threatening and painful? Does the person want to talk about the problem or avoid it altogether? Is a friend looking for conversation or distraction? It is hard to get it right, especially when there is no right.

 Both situations qualify for inclusion in Job’s category of misfortune above. Job had a life that went from sweet to sour in a matter of days. He had a wife and three friends, but each of those relationships proved more alienating than comforting. The Talmud advises us not to be like the friends of Job, helping us understand what not to do when friends needs us. What did they do wrong?

When Job lost his children tragically and sat in mourning with scabs and wounds, the biblical text sings the friends’ praises: “When Job’s three friends heard all about these calamities that had befallen him, each came from his home…They met together to go and console him” (2:11). The three friends could not recognize Job, such was his devastation. They broke out into loud weeping, tore their robes and “sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. None spoke a word to him for they saw how very great was his suffering” (2:12-13).

 The silence of the friends during the early days surfaces their kindness, as Confucius wrote, “Silence is a true friend who never betrays.


The problem was that these friends did not stay silent. They began to speak. They began to judge. Do good people suffer? There must be a reason for tragedy. As each of them speak, Job realizes just how alone he is. His losses were not enough. His suffering was compounded by the knowledge that his wife did not understand him nor did his friends. He felt alienated from and punished by God. Whom do you turn to when there is no one to turn to?

 Job finds the strength to reprimand his friends: “A friend owes loyalty to one who fails,” he tells them. He calls his friends fickle – like a wadi. A wadi is a dry riverbed. It has the shape of a riverbed but has dried out, offering the illusion of commitment but, at close inspection, there is no water. Job’s friends look like friends but, like riverbeds in the staunch heat, “they disappear where they are.” In the end he arrives at a terrible conclusion: “You are as nothing.”

 We cannot be nothing for our friends in need. We need to be something. That something may be just about being present and silent. Sometimes a hug can penetrate a soul much deeper than words.


Shabbat Shalom