Avot 1:7 – Ethics of the Fathers – Evil Friend, Holy Foe – By Yanki Tauber

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Nitai the Arbelite would say: Distance yourself from a bad neighbor, and do not cleave to a wicked person.

On the surface, Nitai the Arbelite appears to be conveying a simple, if redundant, message: Stay away from bad people. In truth, however, a much deeper lesson is implicit in his words. In fact, a close examination of his phraseology yields an altogether different sentiment.

What is the difference between a “bad neighbor” and a “wicked person”? And why must one go so far as to “distance oneself” from the former, while, concerning the latter it is enough to avoid “cleaving” to him?

A “bad neighbor” means just that: not a bad person, but one whose proximity to yourself is detrimental to you. It may be that he is a righteous person, and that his path in life is, for him, most suitable and desirable; but if for you it is wrong and destructive, keep your distance.

On the other hand, a “wicked person” is not necessarily a bad neighbor if he is not in the position to influence you. From him you need not, and must not, distance yourself: on the contrary, befriend him, draw him close and help him improve himself, all the while taking care not to cleave to him and emulate his ways.

In other words: The evil in another is never cause for your rejection of him—only your susceptibility to what is evil for you. On the contrary, the “wickedness” of your fellow it is all the more a reason to become involved with him, and prevail upon him to cleave to the positive in yourself.