Staying Strong To Who We Are Despite Our Surroundings

Mushka Cohen
Essays 2020 / Finalists

“They didn’t change their names, their language or their dress” [1]

Living in our world nowadays isn’t at all that easy. There is the constant and persistent voice in our head that whispers “Just do what everyone else is doing”, “Why do you have to stick out as different?” and “Just be like everyone else”. These voices and others are what can easily cause us to do what everyone is doing and to just go with the flow. But is this what you really want? Is this how you want to go on with your life? Does anyone really want to be controlled by “everyone”?

The verse states[2] “And these are the names of Israel’s sons who came to Egypt…” A commentary then expands on the word “names” and says that the Jews in Egypt “…didn’t change their names, their language or their dress” [3]despite them being in the country that was the epitome of bad influence. An obvious question comes up from this. A question about those Jews of long ago and of us now: How did the Jews stay strong to who they were despite their immoral, corrupt and sinful surroundings? Egypt was not a country known for its morality and integrity, to say the least. And how do we now in these days, the twenty-first century, stay true to who we are in spite of the very beckoning outside world? There are so many things in the outside world that are very enticing. For example: dress, certain things on the media, ways of speech, and ways of body movement etcetera. Things that are usually against the laws of Judaism.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s discourses, the Tanya, the Hayom Yom, the previous Rebbe’s talks, dairies and writings: basically Chassidus, is what answers all these questions, and is what makes us want to keep to who we are in Judaism and in other areas.

Firstly, there are three types of people that do not get affected by their surroundings[4].

  1. The first is a person that makes a conscious decision that they are not going to be affected by their surroundings. There is a story of the Previous Rebbe[5] about this concept, when he was arrested for anticommunist activities. He spread Judaism throughout the Soviet Union even though it was prohibited by law. In the prison, the Previous Rebbe made a very strong decision that he was, under no circumstances, going to be affected by his surroundings. At a certain point, during his arrest, he was shoved forcefully into a cellar. The cellar was full of rats and worms that infiltrated every corner of the dungy basement. He was almost completely submerged in grime. It was unbearable, yet the Rebbe was not intimidated in the least and kept strong to who he was. This shows how strong and powerful it is when one makes a declaration to themselves that they will not be affected, because they will not be affected.

A practical example of this would be if you would be sent to work in an overnight camp of teenagers that don’t have the same standards in dress as you; and before you go you would make a firm decision that you aren’t going to lower your standards in that area, you will not lower them.

  1. The second person is one who separates themselves from those who he knows will have a bad influence on him. Meaning, he surrounds himself with those that have a good effect on him. Since he is only surrounded by good, those are the types of things that he will be pressured to do.

For example: if we are in school, and everyone is doing the latest Tik Tok (The popular video-sharing networking service. An app that is used to create short lip-sync, comedy, and talent videos) that isn’t necessarily the most modest way of moving one’s body; we might come to doing it. But if we surround ourselves with the group of fellow students, in school, that don’t get caught up in such silliness we won’t be inclined to do it.

  1. The third is one that doesn’t get affected and affects others. When a person has the mindset that he is where he is in order to be an example for others, he won’t be affected by the influences around him because he is beyond that. He is there to be a good example and can’t be affected, because of that[6].

As it says, “according to the camel is its weight” G-d only puts people in situations that they can withstand. So, if someone is put in a place that is full of bad influence, he should know that he is more powerful than it and he has the power to influence it[7].

For instance, if we go to a school that has a small minority of students that are ultra-orthodox and a vast majority of students that are not at all or not very religious, and we are part of the more religious students and we are afraid that we will be persuaded to do what the rest of the pupils are doing, we should think of ourselves as there to be a good example for the others, and then we will not be influenced.

The third type of person is the highest level and the one that is the most foolproof. Any of the three is remarkable, yet the way that every person should strive to be is the third, because it is so secure.

Once one has one of these ways engrained in them it will be easier to battle the struggles of the outside world.

Ways to ensure that one shouldn’t be affected:

Way 1: Stay Connected:

When one is living in this very physical and influential world, he should know that he should follow what it says “Bring them close to Torah”. One shouldn’t accommodate Torah to their life and make the Torah fit in to their way of life, but on the contrary they should accommodate their life to Torah[8].

When one wants to inspire their surroundings it is as if they are risking their life because they are specifically putting themselves into a place that they can be influenced in. And they can risk accommodating Torah to them.

The way that one won’t be affected by his surroundings is by being connected above. Above, meaning to the Rebbes of the generation and following the path that they have paved for us[9].

When a miner goes into a mine in order to get pearls and precious stones, they have to be connected from above the mine; it impossible for them to rely on themselves because the repercussions of them not being attached is so great. So too, when a person is in the middle of all the bad influences yet they are connected above they won’t succumb to all the influences[10].

Just like when a person is submerging themselves in a Mikvah to become pure, their entire body has to be completely underwater because if not they will remain impure, when a person is in a place that is full of bad inspiration, if even one part of their soul is connected above then their entire body is connected despite the rest of their body being submerged in the waters of bad influence[11].

There is a story that is told of the Rabbi of Primishlan, Reb Meir[12]. The Mikvah of the city of Primishlan happened to be over a large mountain. This mountain was covered in ice and snow in the winter and it was nearly impossible for anyone to get over it. Nearly impossible. There was only one person that was able to make it over the mountain: Reb Meir.

One day two young men from another town, who were visiting, decided that if Reb Meir could do it than so could they. They began climbing the immense and very slippery mountain. When they weren’t even a foot from the ground, the two of them came crashing down, full of bruises, cuts and many broken bones.

As they were recovering, one of the two decided to approach the Rav, when he would be fully recovered, and ask him how he managed to do it every day without slipping, like the rest of the townsfolk.

When the young man recovered, he entered the Rav’s room and asked him the question that had been burning inside of him throughout his recovery “Reb Meir, how do you do it?” he asked.

The Rabbi answered that if one is connected up high they will never fall down. If one is connected to G-d and to all the Rebbes than they will not fall or stumble in their spiritual path.

This holds a very powerful lesson for us all. If we are connected to the Rebbes we will not stumble or fall in our spiritual work. The way we connect to our Rebbes, is through going to their resting place, learning their teachings and following their directives.

Way 2: Be Happy:

It says in Tanya a very true and powerful point[13]. When a person has intense happiness, a happiness that stems from the realization that G-d is constantly with every person and that there is nothing but G-d, he won’t be affected by inner or outer struggles.

There is a parable of a simple person that is living with a king. Imagine the immense happiness, pride and protection that this man will feel. In our life G-d, the king of all kings, is living and with us at all times. We should be immensely and utterly delighted, pleased and completely exhilarated.

By us having intense happiness because we know that there is nothing other than G-d and that G-d is with us in every step of our life, that exhilaration is what will make us not be affected by any of the bad influences in the world.

Way 3: Stay Stimulated:

A person’s brain is constantly in use. If a person is not using their brain to think and meditate about good and substantial things, their mind automatically wanders to empty, alien and evil thoughts. These swaying thoughts can, and usually will be, thoughts that will persuade us to do the wrong thing or to follow what “everyone” is doing.

In order to stop such thoughts from entering our brain, we need to fill our mind with good things, and busy ourselves with doing and learning good things[14].

There is a story[15] that is told about the Previous Rebbe when he was a child. His father encouraged him to memorize lots of Mishna.

Once, when the Previous Rebbe (then known as Yosef Yitzchak) was walking passed the marketplace, he saw a police officer oppressing an innocent Jew. He was screaming and hitting the poor Jew, who was very afraid.

The little Yosef Yitzchak approached the officer and boldly threw himself onto the officer. The officer became red with rage and ordered the little boy to be thrown in to prison on the account of ripping his expensive badge.

When he was brought to a cell, instead of letting his thoughts wander to not such good places and letting himself be affected by his surroundings, he began reciting the Mishna that he had memorized before.

If we fill our minds with good things than our mind will never have time to wander to the places that we don’t want it to wander to.

Way 4: Say Shema:

It says in Tanya[16], saying the Shema has tremendous power. Saying the Shema twice a day has even more power. When one says Shema, it is the opportunity for him to make that at all times he will have in mind that G-d is one. When one has in mind that G-d is one, it will give them the push they need to overcome temptations and challenges.

Practically, when we say Shema or have the opportunity to do so, we should use it to the fullest because of all the ways that it can help us in our spiritual path of life. And while we are saying the Shema, we should have in mind that this is what is giving us the strength to move on.

Way 5: Be proud:

The will of every regular human being is to project that he is a complete person[17]. If a person is missing a part of their body, he fills the void with a prosthetic body part so that he should be a complete human being.

If someone would be insecure about being a human being, that in it of itself is a flaw and has to be corrected. If a Jew isn’t secure about being a Jew and showing that he is one, he has a blemish. A Jew has to be proud that he is a Jew.

Every Jew should know that he is a Jew; born to a Jewish mother and that he will be a Jew forever. He should also keep in mind that he is a descendant of the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the Matriarchs: Sara, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.

So, we shouldn’t think that by acting Jewish, we are standing out as different amongst the other nations because that is who we are.  We are just being who we are, just like the other nations are being who they are.

Way 6: Fear G-d:

In Torah it says that a Jew has to keep Torah to the fullest no matter what or where because G-d is watching them, and at all times.

It says in the Talmud that “one should fear G-d like he fears people”. It says this because people tend to fear others more than they fear G-d. With G-d one can always repent. If one sins and other people see them and think that they are doing the right thing and copy them, meaning one made others sin, one can’t repent to those people. Those people will always be affected by what they did, because of his actions.

We should fear sinning to G-d like we fear making others sin. And we should also be careful about what we do because others are watching and are copying us[18].

Way 7: Build your Foundation:

Whenever a person is in a situation that they are afraid that they will be influenced, their mind automatically reaches for the things that they have learned when they were a child in order to help them at any moment. This shows that the education of a child is very fragile because the things that he is taught then are going to remain with him for the rest of his life. This is why we have to make sure that children have a pride for their Judaism.

A Jewish child should be taught that when he wears a Kippah and when he only eats kosher candy, he will be respected and admired by the non-Jewish children around him. The Jewish child will than explain to the curious non-Jewish children around him that he has to say a blessing on the candy before eating it and the non-Jewish children will ask him “why?”, the Jewish child will then respond “there is a G-d in the world, and He created everything in this world with His words and will. We have to thank him for everything that he has given us and created, which includes this candy”. When a child grows up with this Jewish pride he will than make good decisions based on it and he will build his future home with this strong foundation[19].

Benefits of staying strong to who you are and what you believe in: 

Benefit 1: Respect and Admiration:

In the Purim story, even though Achashverosh was the king over the whole world, he still made sure that his Jewish subjects would have kosher food by the feast that he prepared. By the Jews keeping strong to who they were even when the officers were headed by Haman, the Jews were given what they desired, at the feast.

If a person wants to be influential in the kings court, he has to stand up for being Jewish and request for what he needs (Kosher food and drink) and by doing this G-d will make the gentiles fulfill his request. They will fulfill what the Jew wants because this is the will of G-d who can make the officers do as he pleases, as it says “The hearts of kings and officers are in the hands of G-d”. G-d can make the officers do whatever He wants, they are like His puppets.

When the non-Jews see us keeping strong to who we are, they might, sometimes, speak against us, but eventually they will see the truth, by us keeping strong to whom we are, like in the story of Purim.  Eventually, Mordechai became second to the king, specifically through him not bowing. The king gave Mordechai his signet ring, to do with it as he pleased. Mordechai now had influence on all 127provinces, the whole populated world of that time, only because he stood up for what he believed in.

This is a very important lesson for us all, that by standing up to who we are despite our environment, we can ultimately gain the respect of those around us and even become “second to the king”[20].

Furthermore[21], the non-Jews already know that Jews are different than they are and that Jews have different laws. So, when a Jew tries to hide his identity and connection to being Jewish, to blend in with the non-Jews, the non-Jews look at him like he’s a fool. He’s trying to fool everyone and G-d, yet he’s the fool. The non-Jews won’t want to give such a person, important positions or ask him for advice because he isn’t trustworthy. He is even being dishonest about his real identity. However, if a Jew is real about whom he is, the non-Jews will trust him and put him in important positions.

Because the non-Jews already expect us to act differently, there is no reason for a Jew to try to hide his Judaism and act like a non-Jew. They will trust us if we are real so we should be real.

Benefit 2: Contentment:

A person can never change their soul[22]. The soul of a Jew desires only godliness and spirituality. But a person can change their thoughts, what they speak and how they act. When a person uses their thought, speech and action for the wrong thing it is fighting against the soul because the soul cannot stand things that are against G-d and godliness.

When a person chooses to go against what his soul desires, his personality is being divided in two totally opposite directions. This “fight” is against his soul and body and it is detrimental for his soul.

We can’t say that a person will be completely healthy and content in such a path in life, since his real essence is his soul and he isn’t being true to his soul.

It is only because G-d gives a person time to reach the truth that a person doesn’t feel damages done to him right away.

Since we can’t change our essence, our behavior should be according to our essence. When we follow our essence, our soul will help us in everything that we do, “with his (our) whole heart”, with both inclinations. By doing this we will be completely healthy and content because there is no inner battle that is going on.

In conclusion, when we (1) are constantly connected to the leaders of the generation (2) have immense joy from knowing that G-d is always with us (3) fill our minds with good things, and when we (4) say Shema (5) fear G-d (6) have Jewish pride and (7) convey the pride that we were given about being Jewish to our children, we are able to withstand all of the inner and outer struggles that we are faced with, like the Jews of Egypt did in the past, whether we have the mindset  that making a strong decision not to be affected will make us not be affected, that being separate from the influences will make us not be influenced, or that we are here to influence others for the good (and not vice versa).

Not only do these things make us resilient to the bad, but there are benefits that come along with it. We become more respected by the outside world for being true to who we are. We can be given a high position. And we will be content with who we are because there won’t be any inside struggles going on.


  • Shemos: 1a
  • Bal Haturim Shemos: 1a
  • Likkutei Sichos: Volume 5: Chayei Sarah
  • Likkutei Sichos: Volume 4: 12 and 13th of Tammuz
  • Reshimot of the Rebbe, Pamphlet 111
  • Toras Menachem 12: Tammuz 1957
  • Sichos Kodesh 4: Tammuz 1981
  • Tanya: Chapter 33
  • Hayom Yom: 16 Cheshvan
  • Sichos Kodesh: 24 Iyar 1951
  • Tanya: Chapter 25
  • Hisvadiot 2: Purim 1982

[1] Bal Haturim Shemos: 1a

[2] Shemos:1a

[3] Bal Haturim Shemos: 1a

[4] Likkutei Sichos: Volume 5: Chayei Sarah

[5] Likkutei Sichos: Volume 4: 12 and 13th of Tammuz

[6] Reshimot of the Rebbe, Pamphlet 111

[7] Reshimot of the Rebbe, Pamphlet 111

[8] Toras Menachem 12: Tammuz 1957

[9] Toras Menachem 12: Tammuz 1957

[10] Toras Menachem 12: Tammuz 1957

[11] Toras Menachem 12: Tammuz 1957

[12] Sichos Kodesh 4:  1 Tammuz 1981

[13] Tanya: Chapter 33

[14] Hayom Yom: 16 Cheshvan

[15] Sichos Kodesh: 24 Iyar 1951

[16] Tanya: Chapter 25

[17] Hisvadiot 2: Purim 1982

[18] Hisvadiot 2: Purim 1982

[19] Hisvadiot 2: Purim 1982

[20] Hisvadiot 2: Purim 1982

[21] Hisvadiot 2: Purim 1982

[22] Hisvadiot 2: Purim 1982