Saturday, Jul 24, 2021

A Herd of Sheep

Why do we all have Siennas, Odysseys and Camrys? No, this isn’t an infomercial for a car dealer. It is just an observation that I once made in these pages. If you look at the wider chareidi community, at least in the tri-state area, the overwhelming majority of cars are Toyota Siennas Honda Odysseys and Toyota Camrys, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that. In fact, all of them have good track records for durability, but just the fact that they are decent, practical vehicles isn’t a sufficiently plausible explanation for why we find such an overwhelming percentage of these cars. After all, there are probably close to fifty different makes and models out there, if not more, yet for some reason, more than half the cars that your average frum family drives are those.

The answer? There is a herd mentality in our communities. Yes, we all buy the same antique leather machzorim for our kallahs, Charles Tyrwhitt has become a “heimishe” name, and we do 101 other things simply because this is what is done.

Now, herd mentality is not all bad. There are positive byproducts of that mentality, too. There is a community standard for many things, and every Tom, Dick and Harry, or Berel, Shemerel and Yossel don’t just make the rules of the game as they go along.

Nevertheless, herd mentality can also be dangerous.

“We Can’t Fight City Hall”

If Yaakov Avinu would have succumbed to herd mentality, we would have never gotten anywhere. Just stop and think for a second: What happened to Yaakov Avinu in last week’s parshah when he came to Choron? He saw three herds of sheep with their shepherds sitting around and waiting, doing nothing. Yaakov Avinu was flabbergasted. After all, it was the middle of the day, not the time to gather the sheep and go home. Why didn’t these shepherds just give water to the flock and take them back out to the fields to graze?

Their answer? “We can’t! We can’t give them water until all of the shepherds come. It is just impossible.” But perhaps it wasn’t impossible. Later, we see that for Yaakov, removing that rock was as simple as taking a bottle cap off a bottle. The answer is that if you have a herd mentality, as the shepherds obviously did, then you can’t. That is just the way it is.

When the excuse becomes, “We don’t do things that way,” or, “This is not the way,” or, “Our olam does it this way,” then your entire power comes from the herd. That is what the shepherds told him. Yes, they hung around herds all day, so they had herd mentality.

Yaakov Avinu, however, was not like that at all. The posuk says, “Vayevaser Yaakov levado – Yaakov remained alone.” He did his own thing in the sense that he analyzed what was right, what he was supposed to do, and did it, regardless of what the herd did.

The Specialty of Yeshiva Sheim V’Eiver

Yaakov Avinu grew up in a house of kedusha. All he had to do was follow his father, Yitzchok, and his grandfather, Avrohom. He was raised in a total holy atmosphere…

…Until Rivka sent him away to her brother, Lavan! What did he do then? He stopped for fourteen years at the Yeshiva of Sheim V’Eiver. What was so special about that yeshiva? The very fact that the roshei yeshiva, Sheim and Eiver, had not grown up in a “charedi” atmosphere, as Yaakov did, is what made it special. Sheim grew up during the Dor Hamabul, facing a generation steeped in total self-indulgence, pleasure-seeking, violence and robbery. Eiver grew up during the Dor Haflagah, a generation of heresy and rebellion against Hashem. Sheim and Eiver thus knew how to inoculate against herd mentality. They had to go it on their own; they had to stand strong and steadfast to resist the herd.

It was there that Yaakov went to “boot camp” to learn how to conduct himself outside the home of kedusha where he grew up. It was there that he learned how to remain a Yid even when dealing with a person like Lavan, whose home and conduct were the very antithesis of the one in which Yaakov was raised.

In the Yeshiva of Sheim V’Eiver, he learned a new avodah, the avodah of inoculating himself, vaccinating himself against negative peer pressure from those amongst whom he would live who did not share the same value system.

Advantages and Pitfalls

Let’s talk a bit about today’s herd mentality. On the one hand, living within the chareidi community has tremendous benefits. Herd mentality is not all bad. Yes, the fact that we were born into this community and lifestyle, the fact that we go to shul, school and social events with many who share the same values and lifestyle as us, can be very wonderful. It can help us maintain standards. But it also comes with a tremendous pitfall. The pitfall? What happens when we are not with the herd? What happens when the herd errs?

It is great to be in the hothouse of our community, but we must make sure that it is our values and our hashkafos that are informing our conduct, not just the fact that “everyone else is doing this.”

Many of us are lost when we leave “the bubble.” We don’t know how to conduct ourselves, to live a life of conviction, to be “levado” and “levodod” as is our mandate.

Today, especially, we can classify our generation as one of “im Lavan garti.” We are living with Lavan. Even from the confines of our homes and our private rooms, offices and cars, we are in almost constant contact with Lavan. If we have any device hooked up to the world (even when it has legitimate uses), then we are living dual lives – lives within our community and simultaneous lives in the world of Lavan.

How do we conduct ourselves in that time? Are we also driving proverbial Siennas and Camrys and going with the flow? If everyone else is sending all kinds of messages, images and jokes around, are we part of that too?

Any thinking person has noticed how the online culture has made short shrift of many of our deeply held values that, as a community, we have had for decades. Gedarim of tzniyus, refinement, and lashon hara b’rabbim have been broken down and trampled on fairly quickly.

It is so easy to go with the herd. Yes, ten years ago this was considered reprehensible, but today it is lechatchilah

We see this repeatedly. We see how the bar is being lowered when it comes to what is acceptable. Conversely, the bar is being constantly raised when it comes to indulgence. It is so hard to be the Yaakov who remains “levado.”

Going Against the Tide

During Tefillas Geshem, we say the words of the piyut describing Yaakov Avinu pushing the rock off the well. The paytan writes, “Yichad lev v’gal even mei’al pi hamayim.” The simple translation is that Yaakov “dedicated his heart and rolled the stone off,” but yichad lev also means that he singled out his heart. He was able to remain single and alone. His heart didn’t just blow with the wind, going with the flow and the herd. Yes, the shepherds said, “We can’t do it,” but Yaakov single-handedly singled out his heart and said, “We can do it,” and he did it.

Perhaps one of the most important lessons we learn from Yaakov is how not to mindlessly follow the herd. Just because they do it, even those who are part of our community, doesn’t mean that is what we should do.

We need to have some backbone.

Let me conclude with the words of the sefer Me’or V’shemesh, who writes that there is a reason that it is customary in many communities to eat salmon on Shabbos. He says that the salmon is the only fish that swims upstream, against the current. This alludes to the fact that a Yid must always be prepared to swim against the current, even when others are ridiculing him.

That is what Yaakov Avinu is teaching us. Don’t become herdsmen. Remember, the herd may have some benefits, but at the end of the day, it cannot dictate how we live.

Only the Torah, as espoused by the mosrei haTorah, can.

Parts of this article are based on Kuntres Az Nidberu.

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