You, LORD, will keep the needy safe
and will protect us forever from the wicked,
who freely strut about
when what is vile is honored by the human race. — Psalm 12:7–8
In honor of my father, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, and his lifework helping Christians understand the Jewish roots of their faith, I offer you one of his devotional teachings from the beloved Psalms.
The Jewish sages told a story about a man who had found traces of leprosy on the walls of his home. The walls were knocked down, presumably because of his sin (leprosy was seen as a defiling skin disease). However, his neighbor — who hadn’t committed any sin but shared a common wall with the sinner — ended up with a knocked-down wall, as well. From this the sages derived the adage: “Distance yourself from an evil neighbor.”
Beyond the practical advice of keeping away from bad people, what we also learn from this story is that we can’t help being affected by those around us. As human beings, we are inevitably influenced by our surroundings.
But what happens when we live in a world like the one that David described in Psalm 12: “when what is vile is honored by the human race”? How do we stay righteous in a world unashamed of sin? How can we uphold our values when we are surrounded by values so very different from our own?
It’s not easy to do what’s right when it isn’t popular and when what is popular isn’t what we believe to be right. Appropriately, the psalm begins: “Help, LORD . . .” (v.1). It ends with a prayer that God protect the innocent: “You, LORD, will keep the needy safe and will protect us forever from the wicked, who freely strut about when what is vile is honored by the human race.” Indeed, we must pray for God’s help to stand up against those vile things valued by others. It is not an easy task, and it’s one for which we need Divine assistance.
However, we can also benefit from the principle that we are affected by our surroundings. We can choose to be around people who reinforce our beliefs and values. We can read the Bible and other literature that provide strength and inspiration. We can become part of a community — even a virtual community — that shares our convictions and aspirations. There is strength in numbers, and it is a virtue we must not neglect.
Most importantly, we must be aware. The most dangerous part of being influenced by society is that it happens without notice. It creeps in through the TV, billboards, and the people we meet in the street. It’s important to take stock once in a while and ask ourselves what our society values and then question if those are values that we share. Knowing where we differ from what “is honored by the human race” is half the battle. Preserving our values is the other half — one that is won with God’s help, community, and dedication.
Download a complimentary sample of Yael Eckstein’s new book, Generation to Generation, to learn more about passing on our faith to the next generation.