There is nothing more contagious than controversy. I know, I’ve been entangled in more than one. At the time, I was sure that I was being an advocate of justice and helping the underdog. In retrospect, however, I usually live to regret my involvement. But in the spirit of full disclosure I’ll admit that an interesting fight has an uncanny way of getting my attention.

A humdrum conversation takes on a whole new edge when a little controversy wheedles its way in. A script becomes emotionally charged when interpersonal tension is weaved into the plot. Dissention is infectious.

And it also influences our thoughts and emotions before we even get a chance to process it objectively.

That’s probably why most people will vote for the same party that their parents vote for, and why we tend to side with our friends’ side of the story.

It was neighbors that grouped up to dramatically challenge the leadership of MosesThe Torah acknowledges how easy it is to become embroiled in someone else’s falling out. During their travels in the desert, it was neighbors that grouped up to dramatically challenge the leadership of Moses: Korach and 250 members from the tribe of Reuben.

Korach began the controversy, but Reuben, the tribe in his closest proximity, was most vulnerable to his influence. G‑d had laid out the floor plan for the tribal encampment in the desert. In the center sat the Tabernacle. The families of the tribe of Levi camped directly around the Tabernacle on all four sides. The other 12 tribes1 camped around the Levites, with a total of three tribes on each side of the Tabernacle.

Korach was from the tribe of Levi. His family, the family of Kohath, camped on the south side of the Tabernacle. Behind them sat the tribes Reuben, Simeon and Gad. It’s no coincidence that men from Reuben felt sympathetic to Korach’s cause and joined him in his revolt against Moses. And although the men from Reuben hadn’t come up with the argument against Moses, they were held accountable for buying into Korach’s influence.

“Woe to the wicked one and woe to his neighbor,” notes Rashi,2 quoting from the Talmud.3 “This is why Dathan and Abiram of the tribe of Reuben and the two hundred and fifty other men were stricken along with Korach and his assembly—for they were drawn along with them in their dispute.”

Sadly, it was a classic case of group think.

And then a few short verses later,4 Rashi brings us an example of the inverse:

“It is good for the tzaddik [righteous one] and good for his neighbor." Rashi says this in reference to the location of Moses’ and Aaron’s family, to the east of the Tabernacle, directly in front of the tribes of Judah, Issachar and Zebulon. “Because they were neighbors of Moses who was involved in the study of Torah, they [too] became great in Torah.”

We’re either being inspired towards idealism or stirred towards resentmentWhen the Torah tells us who lived near whom, it’s telling us about the power of proximal influence. Influence is not always a bad thing, it just depend on who’s doing the influencing. There’s the influence of a rabble rouser and of the scholar. And don’t underestimate the power of the scholar; he can make a loud statement without even saying a word, and influence without ever preaching.

There are three life lessons that Rashi’s noting here:

Perhaps the most obvious one is to be conscious of whom we choose as our influences. There are two primary types of influences: Torah study and controversy. I’d think that all other types of influence fall in some subset of these two. We’re either being inspired towards idealism or stirred towards resentment. And the two are mutually exclusive.

The second insight is more subtle. If we want to stay away from controversy we’d best jump to the other extreme—learning Torah. Conversely, the way to maximize our depth and clarity of understanding Torah is through steering clear of altercations. It’s one or the other.

(Easier said than done. For me at least.)

The third lesson gives us a bit of guidance on how to resist the temptation to get involved in strife and the inspiration to study Torah well. The key is in Rashi’s own words: “It is good for the tzaddik and good for his neighbor." Although Rashi goes on to talk about the influence of Torah study, he doesn’t call Moses a scholar, he calls him a tzaddik. A tzaddik is not only a Torah protégé, but a G‑d seeker. One who learns Torah in order to connect to the One who gave the Torah. The more the tzaddik learns, the more spirituality he or she elicits. The tzaddik’s connection to G‑d is so apparent that his or her sphere of influence becomes uplifted by teachings. Suddenly, contention loses much of its appeal.

In describing the encampment of the nation in the desert, the Torah paints a case-in-point to depict the power of influence and persuasion, and the strength available to those who choose to be influenced by a tzaddik.5