Are we spiritually affected by the people around us?

One of the biggest catastrophes the world ever experienced is recorded in this week’s Torah reading. The sins of the inhabitants of Earth reached such a horrific state that God had to bring a flood upon the entire globe to annihilate all the living creatures above land. Only those who were in Noah’s ark were spared. The sins were so great that even the animals started to act corruptly and were mating with other species. Consequently, they too, had to be destroyed along with the people, except for a few that stuck to their own species and were saved along with Noah (see Rashi 6:12,20). The obvious question is: how can animals sin? Animals don’t have free will to choose good from bad.

To answer this, Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian (in Lev Eliyahu) prefaces with a story. There was once a hospital in Europe where a strange occurrence began. Sick people who were admitted to the hospital started becoming worse than the way they were when they entered. Moreover, some even contracted new diseases that seemed unrelated to the ones they suffered from originally. As the situation got worse, experts were called to identify the mysterious problem. When they concluded their investigation, they determined that the problem was that the hospital was so old that the walls had accumulated an enormous amount of germs from all the sick people who had stayed there in the past. These germs were embedded so deeply in the structure that there was nothing to do but to demolish the building.

Rabbi Lopian explains that a similar concept applies to spiritual matters. When one sins, the sin creates spiritual pollution that contaminates the surroundings. The sins of mankind at the time of the flood amounted to such a degree that even the animals were affected by the spiritual contamination which existed in the world, and they too, became corrupt in their behavior. The only way to cleanse the earth was to practically wipe out all life on land and start anew. In fact, our sages tell us (see Rashi 6:13) that even the surface of the ground needed to be eradicated as deep as the plow reaches; even the dirt itself was adversely affected by the flood.

This concept brings us to a new perspective about spiritual matters. Generally, we view spirituality as an abstract concept which we find hard to relate to. Based on the above insight, we see that spirituality is a very real existence that is present in our environment. Our actions, whether good or bad, have an actual effect on our surroundings. It is not just a matter of influence upon those who observe us; rather, our actions create a living reality with a life of its own, which could attach itself to its surroundings and reach others.

While most of us are  not sensitive to this existence and it remains intangible to us, the potential effects are as real as anything. Just like we cannot see or feel germs, yet we know that they can enter a person’s body unnoticed and have the most devastating effect on the strongest of people; so too, negative spiritual “bacteria” created through unethical behavior can linger and have a poisoning effect on a person’s soul. With this in mind, it is imperative for us to be aware of where we choose to spend our time, and with whom. Even if we are strong in our resolve not to be influenced by the conduct of others, this will not make us immune to the spiritually contaminated atmosphere which may enter us discreetly and wreak havoc from within. Conversely, by following Torah principles, we create a positive, spiritually charged atmosphere. By conducting ourselves properly, in accordance with God’s will, we turn our homes into places which are saturated with a holy spirit; a real presence of a sanctified existence which will surely have the most positive effect on our souls and on all of those who are exposed to it. by Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber

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