Mishpatim I - FOLLOWING THE CROWD
THE TEXT of my message is based on a verse in the Torah, "Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil" (Exod. 23:2).
It is related that one of the outstanding scholars and teachers of our people, the sainted Chofetz Chayim, once asked a man he knew why he didn't lead a more decent life, why he. didn't observe more of the tenets and traditions of his faith. With a pained look the man replied, "Rabbi, you know quite well that the majority in our community are no better than I. Why do you pick on me and expect me to be different from the rest?" To which the sage retorted, "There may be some truth to what you say, but let me ask you a few questions. Tell me, who do you think are in the majority --the unselfish and good-hearted people or the selfish ones?" The man thought for a while and said, "Truly good-hearted people are few indeed. From my observation and experience I know that the majority is not so good." "Tell me then," the rabbi persisted, "who do you think are in the majority, those who consider themselves rich or the poor?" The reply was that the poor were in the majority "Now, who do you think are in the majority, the healthy and strong who seldom experience aches and pains, or the weak and ailing?" The man said that the weak and ailing were in the majority. "Consider then the replies you have given to my questions," the sage urged. "You want to belong to a poor, sick and demoralized majority when you have the choice of joining the blessed company of the healthy and morally potent few!"
Why am I mentioning this story? Because the tendency in our society to follow the crowd is endangering the growth of ideas and the development of good character. The popular phrase, "everyone is doing it" causes many to run with the pack and to stampede with the herd. The desire to follow the crowd has created the adage, "when in Rome do as the Romans do." By exploiting this human weakness, advertising has loomed into a multi-billion dollar business. One is almost compelled by the mass communication media to wear the same garments, eat the same foods, read the same books, see the same movies and plays as the rest of the crowd. How can one resist the beautiful scenery and pastoral setting in which a lovely girl lights a cigarette and exhales the smoke into the dreamy eyes of a tall and handsome college athlete? One feels like dropping everything and rushing out to buy several cartons of that brand! And this despite the warning on the wrappers of cigarette boxes that smoking may be a hazard to one's health.
One may argue that there are areas where there is no harm in following the crowd. What is wrong with the desire to be up-to-date in matters of fashion or style? Some even maintain that the urge to conform is all to the good, for it has a beneficial effect on the economy of the land. It promotes business and helps keep the wheels of industry moving by creating mass production of goods and services. The beer, cola, toothpaste and clothing we use are less costly because of the power of mass communications media which guide the prevailing tastes, practices and styles.
While this argument may or may not hold in the economic sphere, it is definitely detrimental where religious and moral issues are involved. There the policy of following the crowd can corrupt the intellectual and spirtual fiber, first of the individual and then of the nation.
Young people, in particular, are frequently victimized by these slogans. There are all sorts of subtle group pressures that are at work to force them to conform. There is the pressure of sociability, the desire not to be different, the fear of being called a poor sport, a "square" or "kill-joy." The dread of being left out in the cold by one's peers has caused a number of young men and women to drink hard liquor, smoke marijuana, use dangerous drugs and make compromises with standards of ethics and sex.
A young man expressed to his parents the desire to go on an extended trip with a group of young people of shady repute. When the parents were reluctant to permit him to go, the young man protested. "Don't you trust me that I will not be misled by them?" His father picked a dead coal from hearth and handed it to his son. When the young man took it, the palm of his hand became soiled. "See," said the father. "Even when they do not burn, coals blacken. And so it is with evil companions."
There is no getting away from the fact that bad associates "soil" our character, and that it is no easy matter to stand against the crowd. It tests one's fortitude and moral fiber; it calls for the kind of courage that the soldier needs on the field of battle. It requires a dedication to a great faith and a great cause. But the alternative is disastrous. It spells moral flabbiness and even physical ruin. Those who succumb to the line of least resistance are in for a bad time. They remind me of the scene I watched while standing on a bridge. Broken boards and pieces of wood were drifting down the stream, transferred by the current from one eddy to another, only to end up to rot in a stagnant pool.
What brought about the downfall of ancient Sodom? The Talmud relates that in order to discourage visits from strangers, the citizens of that sinful city made a special bed in which a visitor to their community was made to fit. If his feet were too long, they were brutally shortened. If they were too short, they were pulled to fit the bed (Sanh. 109b; Niddah 69a).
Intellectually and spiritually speaking, a great many people live in Sodom. Modern man is expected to fit the bed of society. Ideals and values have been standardized and stereotyped to the extent that anyone who does not follow the accepted norms is considered odd and queer. The average person feels that since everyone thinks so, says so and does so, it must be right. That is how souls are lost and how society perpetuates its prejudices and its evils.
A few days after the members of the General Assembly of the United Nations had given Yassir Arafat, the leader of the murderous P.L.O., a royal welcome, U.S. Ambassador Scali addressed that same body and spoke of "the tyranny of the majority" as a threat to the survival of the U.N. and the peace of the world. This is another way of describing "the tyranny of Sodom" and "following the multitude to do evil."
If there is to be a future for the world, man will have to muster his cumulative wisdom and courage to shun the bed of Sodom, and to refuse to stampede with the herd to do evil.