This week’s Torah portion begins quite dauntingly with the following formidable warning, “See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse… the blessing [will come] when you listen to m+-y commandments – the curse when you do not listen to me, and follow other gods” (Devarim 11:26-28). God could not make it clearer: He is telling Klal Yisrael that we will be blessed if we follow His commandments, and we will be cursed if we serve Avodah Zarah. Throughout the Torah, including in the Ten Commandments, we are admonished against serving idols – and we are told clearly the kinds of curses and punishments that will befall us if we do. Furthermore, the Jewish people saw and experienced direct evidence of these punishments following their unfortunate interactions with the Midianite women who enticed them to serve Baal Peor. It is therefore curious enough that God again warns us against serving idols at the start of this Parsha. But that is not all.
In the next Perek, (12:30) God specifically tells the Jewish people, “pen tidrosh leilokeihem leimor, eichah yaavdu hagoyim haeileh es eloheihem, v’e’eseh kein gam ani, - lest you seek out their Gods, saying, ‘look how these nations serve their gods, I will do the same myself!’” Rav Wolbe wonders how it could be that we must be warned yet again not to serve Avodah Zarah after so many explicit statements against it. Rav Wolbe quotes Rav Yerucham Levovitz, the former Mashgiach of Mir, who notes that the most essential piece of this commandment is found in the words “v’e’eseh kein gam ani,” – “and I will do the same myself.”
No matter how many times we’ve been warned, no matter the enormity of the curses levied for our iniquity, the drive to be liked by and to be like others is such a powerful force that it can dull even the sharpest sense of morality and conscience. Rav Yerucham explains that our inclination to sin, despite our best intentions and spiritual proclivities, is in fact a result of our strong desire to fit in and find favor with others. Hashem is warning the Jewish people that the time will come when they will look around at the other nations dwelling in the land and they will notice that they are the odd ones out – everyone else is serving Avodah Zarah, except the Jews. And the urge to belong, to fit in, to curry favor with the inhabitants, the burning desire not to stand out, will overtake the Jews just as it overtakes us all – and it is at that point that they will say, “Everyone else is doing it, so I will do it, too!”
Belonging is one of the most powerful psychological drives. It colors our lives and our behaviors from an early age. Even babies will imitate sounds they hear, and children will begin to speak by parroting what is said around them, and they will behave in accordance with the actions that have drawn the most attention, regardless of whether that attention is negative or positive. As we grow, this need morphs into the phenomenon we so commonly and sometimes unkindly associate with adolescence – the urge to fit in, to be liked, becomes overwhelming, the primary driver of almost every action, every word, every outfit chosen and decision made.
Just today, I had a teenage patient tell me in no uncertain terms that she would not be picked up early from school to come to therapy because she is starting high school and absolutely no one can know that she goes to therapy. Of course, I could not tell her about the other kids from her school who also sometimes get picked up early to come to their sessions with me or my colleagues; I validated her discomfort and hesitation, and yet it gave me pause. It is easy to associate insecurity and a vulnerability to peer pressure with those adolescent years – but it is also something we must recognize as a powerful force that we do not outgrow unless we intentionally try to do so.
When we start a new job, when we meet a new friend or classmate, when we as teachers walk into a new class of students for the first time – when I first meet with a patient – there is a very human and natural urge to make a good impression. We are wired this way for a reason, of course. Evolutionarily, humans must foster connections with one another; we must be liked, in some way, by someone, to survive. At the same time, however, this drive to be liked and accepted can have dangerous consequences for a nation that is meant to stand out.
It can be uncomfortable to be the token Jew, the one who’s always mumbling when she leaves the bathroom, or after she eats, or before she eats – actually, is she always mumbling to herself?! It can feel embarrassing to have to decline lunch dates with coworkers, to constantly need to explain why you can’t have the food brought in for the potluck, even if they find a Rabbi to come bless it. It can feel awkward to need to miss the first five Mondays or Tuesdays of a semester, or to be taking seven vacation days off of work in October when most people have just returned from vacation merely a month ago. It can feel strange to dress modestly in the summer, to look around at your colleagues’ sleeveless blouses and not feel self-conscious in your sleeves and skirts.
And yet, this is exactly the nature of the warning found in this week’s Parsha. Hashem knows the urge, the psychological drive within us that makes us want to fit in. He knows because He wired us this way. And, at the same time, he encourages us to notice it, to see it for what it is, this desire to be like everyone else, to do what they are doing because they are doing it.
This week marks new beginnings and first starts for many of us. Whether you are returning to or starting school or work, the opportunity will arise to present yourself as different, to own your Jewishness and your unique identity in a way that says, “I do what I do and I am proud of it.” Rather than being in a state of “gam ani,” we can walk with our heads held high and simply say, “lo ani,” I do not do that, and I can still know you and be kind to you and spend time with you, without doing exactly what you do. Ironically, it is the owning of our identity, while continually exuding warmth and genuineness, which truly endears us to others. When we are unapologetic about our uniqueness, and continue to be kind and warm and accepting at the same time, we create an opportunity for unparalleled Kiddush Hashem and interpersonal connection.