Friends

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