Matai of Arbel says: “Distance yourself from a bad neighbor; do not associate with a wicked person; and do not despair of retribution.”
In last week’s mishnah, Yehoshua ben P’rachyah taught the importance of drawing close to people to forge friendships and learning relationships. This week’s passage, by contrast, teaches that there are times when we are obligated to distance ourselves from others.
Matai of Arbel recognizes the significance of negative peer pressure, which affects us all. If we associate with unethical people, we are far more likely to act unethically ourselves. While we can’t always separate ourselves from bad influences—sometimes they are our bosses, co-workers, and even family members—we can minimize the time we spend with them.
But what is the relationship between this warning and the last part of Matai’s teaching: “Do not despair of retribution?” In his social justice commentary on Avot, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz writes: Some fear that they will miss out if they don’t join the liars and cheaters who seem to be winning. The mishnah reminds us that the honest and faithful will win, both in this world and in the world-to-come.
I’m skeptical of this, at least at face value. I am completely agnostic about the existence of a world to come, and the premise that the honest and faithful will necessarily win in this world seems dubious at best. I believe life is all too often unfair; as quite a few of the Rabbis recognize, sometimes the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. While a part of us wishes that everyone would ultimately get their just desserts—which is to say proper retribution—when it comes to material benefits, it just isn’t so.
Still, virtue can be its own reward. By associating with good companions and shunning bad influences, we are far more likely to do the right thing in our lives—and the satisfaction of making the world a little better for our having been here often must suffice. It may not make us rich or popular or powerful, but when we choose to associate with ethical people, we at least have the satisfaction of knowing we are doing our best to live up to God’s calling to be holy, honoring the Divine Image in which we are created.