Garrett Reisman is an engineer and former NASA astronaut who was part of various expedition crews during the 2000s. He describes one of the exercises he underwent while training in the deserts of Utah.

I was the leader of a group of trainees, and it was very hot, and we were running out of water. We each had a map and a compass and we knew where a source of water was, so we navigated our way through the desert to get to the water. As we got underway, I looked at the map and identified a mountain that in my estimation would lead us to the water source.

I showed my team the mountain and told them of my estimations, and then challenged them: “Does anyone here think differently? Can anyone prove that this is not the mountain that will lead us to the water source?”

I did this for very practical reasons: If I was wrong, we would be trekking through a hot desert for a long time without any water and not getting any closer. I wanted to make sure I was really right, so I invited people to challenge my conclusion.

Inviting opposition is a great way to ensure a correct conclusion. As we’ll see: beware the yes-man.

The Mesit

Parshat Re’eh discusses the laws pertaining to someone who persuades others to engage in idolatry:

If your brother, the son of your mother, tempts you in secret, or your son, or your daughter, or the wife of your embrace, or your friend, who is as your own soul, saying: “Let us go and worship other gods, which neither you, nor your forefathers, have known.”1

This person is known in halachic literature as the mesit—“the influencer” (in a bad way). The Torah details the highly unusual process of ensnaring the mesit and ensuring he gets the full fire and fury of punishment.

But why does the Torah describe this person as “your brother”? If a non-relative tries to be a mesit, they are met with the same fate, so why does the Torah choose “brother” as the narrative example?2

The Evil Tempter Who’s Your Brother

A deeper, more personal understanding of this verse will lead us to the answer. Many commentaries3 view the story of the mesit not limited to the narrow case of a nefarious influencer trying to ensnare others to literally bow down to idols of stone. We can expand the borders of this story to include anyone and anything that seeks to throw us off the straight and true path of G‑d. Indeed, “mesit” is one of the names given in the Talmud4 to the yetzer hara, the evil inclination inside each and every one of us.

Accordingly, the verse speaks to all internal and external voices tempting us to do the wrong thing.

Understood this way, the identifying marker, “your brother,” is actually a handy and helpful tip for identifying the enemy.

You see, as we navigate life and try to do the right thing, there are many competing voices advising us. Internal voices compete for our ears, and countless other external voices chime in as well.

Who do we listen to? Voices that tempt us to do outright terrible and stupid things are relatively easy to ignore. But hardly anything in this world is black and white, so how do we know who to listen to in cases of moral and/or religious ambiguity?

The prescient words of our verse provide the answer: Avoid the voice that sounds like “your brother.” If it’s overly comfortable, very nice to you, and oh-so-cozy, beware. Those are the internal yes-men who are simply telling you what you want to hear. Chances are quite high that they’re wrong.

Get Uncomfortable

There you have it: seek out advice you don’t like. It’s unnatural, which is precisely why we’re talking about it. No one likes to hear that they’re wrong, or that they must do something that makes them feel like scraping nails across a chalkboard.

You don’t want to hear that you’re parenting incorrectly. You don’t want to hear that you’re not doing a great job at work. You don’t want to hear that some of your friends are eroding your morality. You don’t want to hear that you could really be doing more, a lot more, for G‑d and your Judaism.

Of course you don’t, because it makes you uncomfortable.

But if you never seek it out, or at least take it from those who give it to you, you’ll never grow or improve. If you have a sticky moral question and immediately like the answer you get, think again. It may very well be that you like it so much because it isn’t challenging you; it’s simply pandering to your comfort zone, or worse yet, your baser instincts.

Be honest and be brave.

Seek out mentors who go hard on you and tell you things you don’t want to hear. When your spouse, children, friends, or co-workers tell you something you don’t like, listen to it. If you read something that starts making you itchy under the collar, stop yourself and try to embrace the chance to finally hear the truth.

Beware the yes-man. He may make you feel good, but you’re smarter than that.5