Friday, March 24, 2023


Avraham was selected by Hashem to transform a dark pagan world by educating them about a “one God.” For thousands of years, Hashem’s presence was obscured from a lost world — lost, as in, which had fallen into moral disarray. Finally, one man discovered Hashem and he was determined to inspire his fellow human beings to a life of religion and meaning.

Avraham’s first teaching opportunity arose in the aftermath of a bloody battle. For 25 years, the world was engulfed in a vicious conflict, incited by a large-scale rebellion against four oppressive tyrants. Avraham was slowly dragged onto the battlefield, in part to quell the violence, and in part, to rescue his nephew, Lot, who had been taken as prisoner of war. Avraham liberated his nephew and rescued the entire kingdom of Sedom from these belligerent and repressive monarchs.

As was common practice in the ancient era, Avraham — a military hero — was offered lavish financial compensations, as well as human reward in the form of the citizens of Sedom who would now be reassigned to him and become members of his clan.

Avraham lifted up his hands to Heaven and foreswors any reward or any “people transfer,” refusing even to accept something as meager as a shoe-string. This disavowal of reward was both noble-spirited and expected. Avraham aspired to establish a new moral standard, and the best way to begin was to avoid any trace of greediness or desire for profit. Greed is a dark and powerful human instinct, especially when we sense the opportunity for free profits. The thought of profiting upon the misfortunes of others was repugnant and this move would sabotage Avraham’s lofty moral agenda. To memorialize Avraham’s moral courage, we wear string-laden tzitzit as a constant reminder to live within ourselves and within our resources — rather than chasing unbridled consumerist longing.

Though his frugal rejection of war loot was admirable, Avraham’s refusal to naturalize the citizens of Sedom was surprising. The residents of the corrupt city of Sedom would soon be incinerated in a hail of sulphuric fire and heavenly flames. This was a perfect opportunity for Avraham to save the souls of condemned sinners and convert them to Judaism. Avraham stumbled upon a giftwrapped opportunity to save people from a looming disaster, yet, he took a pass. His decision was so odd and incongruous with his mission, that the Gemara itself critiqued him. What could possibly have convinced Avraham to reject these potential converts?


Education of Manipulation

After his heroic rescue mission, Avraham enjoyed extraordinary popularity. He was heralded by kings and lauded by grateful soldiers whom he had protected on the battlefield. Most of all, the average common citizen was indebted to Avraham for saving their lives.

If Avraham would parlay his influence to inculcate his new religious ideas, those ideas may not be authentically incorporated. How genuine would people’s acceptance of Avraham’s ideology be, if they were coerced to consent — because Avraham was so popular, and because he enjoyed a position of such authority? Given his wild popularity, they may sheepishly follow his lead, but it would be unlikely that they would deeply internalize his new notions about religion and morality.

Moreover, would it be even fair of Avraham to take advantage of his stature and his rising popularity to indoctrinate others? Using our moral authority or our popularity to aggressively influence others can be intrusive and manipulative. It is one thing to suggest ideas, or even to passionately assert our beliefs.

However, when our audience has no choice but to accept our opinions, we must be exceedingly careful about how we offer our opinions and how strong we peddle our influence. It may work in the short term, but rarely yields genuine education. Even when this approach is successful, it raises several moral red flags. Avraham paused before he exerted his popularity and influence upon the impressionable people of Sedom and perhaps, as the Gemara implies, he made an incorrect decision. However, his moral quandary was vital for preserving his moral integrity.

These are very delicate questions about the manner in which we convince people of our ideas.

When we are deeply committed to values, we may share our opinions with others — hoping to persuade them to our view. However, we must also check ourselves against manipulating or deceiving others. Do we spread our influence in a respectful and dignified manner, which doesn’t insult the intelligence of our listeners? Do we abuse our positions of authority to unduly influence other people, thereby robbing them of their autonomy and personal discretion? There are no easy answers to this dilemma, but these are important questions worth pondering —especially for educators and rabbis.


Information or Influence?

Avraham’s dilemma also sheds light upon our current cultural moment. The internet, and in particular, social media have empowered us to spread our influence to larger audiences than ever before. At best, the internet makes us better informed people, as it allows information to flow more freely and more efficiently. The internet is a portal which grants us access to wisdom, knowledge and expertise which we don’t personally possess.

However, social media doesn’t just better inform us, it also powerfully influences us. Social media has manufactured a new public figure called an “influencer,” who aims to shape our opinions and behavior. Generally, “influencers” do not possess particular talent or unique expertise, but manage to get our attention, as they continuously garner followers and “likes.” Social media empowers them to impact our purchase decisions, our thoughts, our opinions, and our social and political behavior.

We thoughtlessly submit ourselves to the influence of people, who possess nothing more than celebrity or notoriety. Often influencers pontificate about topics which they are completely ignorant of — preaching about politics, culture or religion.

Additionally, by submitting ourselves to the influence of others, we abdicate our freedom of decision — often falling prey to group thinking and to herd mentality. Ironically, the internet, — which was meant to democratize information, and empower personal autonomy — often shrinks our freedom of thought and of opinion.


Addicted to Influence

Sadly, our culture celebrates the phenomenon of influencing others. We start to define ourselves and our worth based upon our capacity to influence others, rather than upon our principles, character or achievements. As we thirst for more and more influence, we become more dependent upon public approval for our self-esteem. We act provocatively — just to draw attention to ourselves, and “feed the monster” and satiate our desire for public attention.

In a tragic irony, the “influencer” becomes the “influenced.” Influencing others becomes so addictive that our personal behavior is, itself, influenced by our overwhelming desire to influence others. Are “influencers” the ultimate “influencees?”


Religion Is About Inherent Value

Religious people look for inherent value and not “social value” or value based upon public opinion. We construct lifestyles of which should be internally self-sufficient and should not require external social validation.

The validity and integrity of a religious life should never be a product of how much that lifestyle influences other people. Believing deeply in the nobility and meaning of a religious life, we certainly desire others to be similarly inspired, but our own evaluation and appreciation of religion must come from within and not from the impact our religious values have upon others. Too much influence peddling can distract us from that inner validation which lies at the core of religious meaning. Influence can often degrade meaning. While influence comes and goes, meaning is built to last.

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a masters degree in English literature from the City University of New York.

Sign up now!