The Torah's Answer to Peer Pressure

It is right here in the weekly reading if you look for layers of meaning.

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Rabbi Lazer Gurkow,

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow

The Dilemma
Resisting peer pressure is a common challenge. It is a mistake to think that this is only a problem for young people; it pervades every segment of society. You might attend a party and experience pressure to drink. You might attend a social evening and encounter pressure to gossip. You might attend a business meeting and encounter pressure to cut corners. How to deal with it?

Maimonides was rather blunt with his advice when he suggested that to avoid peer pressure we need to associate with better people. This is probably the soundest advice, but often also impractical; it isn’t easy to uproot ourselves and find a whole new set of friends.

Not only is it difficult to remove ourselves, an argument can be made that it is also counterproductive because it leaves our friends without the benefit of our positive influence. If we can find a way to withstand their pressure, our presence among them will afford us an incredible opportunity to be a positive influence. Is it then proper to abscond?

In fact, ever since the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem many Rabbis advocated moving away from Jewish metropolises and establishing learning and outreach centers in satellite communities.

Shortly after the Temple’s destruction many sages made their way to Yavneh, a city in Israel, where a major Talmudic academy was established. They went there to create a stable environment of Torah learning after the chaos of the Great War and the vast destruction wrought by it. At least one sage disagreed and urged his students to export the inspiration and Torah absorbed in Israel to communities beyond Israel. Thus, Rabbi Matyah Ben Charash journeyed to Rome and established a Yeshiva there.

This only brings us back to our original question. If we are meant to reside among peers that pressure us, how can we best withstand their pressure and exert a positive influence?

Always Expunge
The answer comes to us from a surprising source. In our Parsha we read that when our nation returned from their war against Midyan laden with spoils, the High Priest, Elazar, taught them to Kosherize the implements they had plundered (except for earthenware utensils). “Whatever is used in fire you shall pass through fire and then it will be clean… and whatever is not used in fire you shall pass through water.” The Talmud explains that it is, “purged in the manner it is used. If it is used in hot water, it must be purged in hot water, and if it is used for roasting, such as a spit or grill, it must be made to glow in fire.”

The laws of purging are complex. It relies on the basic principle that the pot’s molecules expand in heat and trap the flavor of the food cooked in it. When the pot is used again, the molecules expand once more and expunge the flavor back into the pot and the food cooked in it. If the original flavor wasn’t kosher, the second batch of food cooked in the pot will also be rendered non kosher.

The solution is to purge the pot in boiling water, which expands the molecules, purges the non kosher flavor and renders the pot kosher for use. The problem is that if the molecules expand enough to expunge the flavor they can also reabsorb the flavor and once again render the pot non kosher.

Jewish law offers a number of solutions. The first and best option is to wait twenty-four hours before purging the pot. The wait compromises the integrity of the flavor rendering it ineffectual. We still purge the pot from its compromised flavor, but reabsorbing an ineffectual flavor doesn’t concern us.

The second option is to immerse the pot in boiling water for as long as it takes to purge, but to remove it before it has a chance to reabsorb. This is based on the principle, “so long as it is consumed with purging, it does not absorb.” We must carefully, assess how much time purging requires and ensure that it is immediately removed from the boiling water.

The third option is to ensure that the water is at a rolling boil so long as the pot is immersed in it. This requires careful examination because water tends to cool with the insertion of cold pots, but if we ensure that the water is boiling so long as the pot is immersed, the pot will not reabsorb. This is based on the principle that pots expunge in boiling water, but only absorb in water below the boiling point.

The Solution
We have now arrived at the solution to resisting peer pressure. The gist of the challenge is to expunge our positive influence without absorbing unhealthy influence from our peers. The best solution is to wait twenty-four hours. In other words, to join the circle only after we take the time to establish a firm foundation. If we spend enough time in a kosher environment before venturing out to become a positive influence on others, we will be inured, to a degree, against becoming corrupted ourselves.

This is a good solution, but not foolproof. Many have had a solid educational foundation only to flounder later in life. The solution at this point is to remember that the best defense is a strong offense. If we remain on the offensive, always exerting a positive influence and modeling good behavior, we will hardly have time to absorb negative ideas from others. So long as we are consumed with expunging we will be unavailable for absorbing.

When this fails to work we fall back on our third solution, to ensure a rolling boil, which means to strengthen our own passion for Torah. So long as our fire burns brightly and the flame of our love for G-d is strong, we will remain true to our path and protected from the pressure brought on by peers. Every time we feel tempted we simply fan the flames of passion that burn in our hearts for G-d.

Like everything in the Torah, simple laws conceal great layers of meaning. In this case, the answer to curbing peer pressure comes from purging a non kosher pot.