What Will the Neighbours Think?

Rivka Cohen, Greater Manchester, England
Competition / Essays 2019

We often pride ourselves as being unique individuals following our core values, but honestly we may be surprised to find ourselves following the crowd and caring what the neighbours will say, what will my friends say? There’s a natural desire to conform, to find security and validation from others, whether in the eyes of how the world accepts us, or our friends or even oneself.

The first line in Shulchon Aruch, the Code of Jewish law is the following: Yehuda ben Teima says: “Be bold as a leopard, swift as an eagle, fleet as a deer and strong as a lion, to fulfill the will of your Father in Heaven.” To be “bold as a leopard” means that one should not to be embarrassed when confronted by scoffers. The foundational and primary work as a Jew is not to be intimidated and do exactly what Hashem wants from us at each and every moment, no matter what the neighbours will think.

Jews have always been the minority living in foreign environments that tested their ideals and values. Today in modern society, Jews are accepted, but living Torah true Yiddishkeit is herculean; asking one to be different and buck the trends. In our own communities modernising is popular and so the conflict is within and the mocker in our own home and in our own head. This theme of unshakeable faith and observance amidst any adversity was  consistent  throughout the Rebbes letters and talks , continuously urging Jews to be relentlessly unaffected by any doubters, mockers and critics.

How do we develop this steadfast confidence and healthy stubbornness  in our beliefs and principals so it’s evident even under pressure- there goes a Jew? This takes deep conviction and poise, a healthy relationship with Hashem and others.  How are we able to live it? How do we cultivate this  “elephant skin” so we live super true Yiddishkeit without compromise?

The Rebbe in his talks and letters highlights the course of action:

  • Call a spade a spade.. Recognise and be honest about social pressure and pleasing others.
  • Recognising that hashem is with me in this situation, I’m not handling it alone and I’m going to be able to stand true to my beliefs.
  • A mindset where the world is not something of significance in my eyes.

Call a Spade a Spade

Social pressure catches us all, and the Rebbe wanted to ensure that we can escape the trap.

Rabbi Bernhard, a Rabbi in South Africa had written to the Rebbe on behalf of Neshei Ubnos Chabad regarding the Rebbe’s emphatic and powerful talk on having big families. He had written to the Rebbe detailing different reasons why a woman may need time between having children. The Rebbe responds  : “ it’s like it says in the beginning and foundation of Shulchan Aruch- what will the mockers say?” here the Rebbe write mockers in the feminine. Meaning what will my friends say, another baby, again? The Rebbe wanted to empower this woman not to cave in to social pressure and instead to be true to what Hashem wants and what she might want as well!

In the following  letter in regard to wearing a Shaitel , the Rebbe highlighted the social pressure of being different. In this letter the Rebbe encourages the woman to wear a Shaitel by making her aware of the social pressure she is in.

Considering the great reward which is promised to the woman and mother who wears a sheitel, it should surely be worthwhile to do so even if the wearing of a sheitel would entail serious difficulties and conflicts. How much more so where the objection to it, as you write, is only because it is “old fashioned.” This is not a real objection, nor a valid one, and it is rather based on the “opinion” of others.

Let me also add that even considering the general attitude towards this and other mitzvoth, there has been a radical change in recent years, one of respect and admiration for people who are consistent and live up their convictions and ideals, and are not influenced by the mob. There may always be some individual who might make a joke about the person’s convictions, but where a person is sincerely dedicated to his faith, such a person can only call forth respect and admiration.

 ( English letter of Rebbe Chanukah 5721)

The Rebbe also stresses that instead of feeling insecure to be different, now it would be a mark of respect and admiration. Here the Rebbe is empowering the woman to be dedicated to her faith and not bow to social pressure and trends.

I’m Not Alone

What gives a person the strength to stay true to their core beliefs and not waver? A healthy connection and awareness of Hashem in their personal and individual moment. When a person feels their not alone, and on the contrary in the company of the most powerful then one does not feel intimidated but empowered.

In a talk from Achron Shel Pesach 1979 the Rebbe sets out a course for how one can withstand opposition in keeping Torah and Mitzvos by keeping in one’s  heart and mind the awareness that Hashem is with me and before me at all times. The verse in Tehillim chapter 16 states “ I constantly place G-d before me” . When one is mindful and conscious of Hashem standing over him each and every moment,  then a person is infused with a higher connection and can withstand and stay true to his principles. They aren’t alone in the battle.

The Rebbe then adds a practical note. For many people to be  constantly aware of Hashem’s presence is a nice castle in the sky but impractical. The Rebbe notes that even by meditating on the above in the beginning of the day, that will enable a person to withstand possible challenges with just a quick reflection.

The World isn’t that Big

The Rebbe, in a talk, Parshas Ekev 1956 outlines a descending cognitive spiral that may befall a person. This spiral illustrates how our minds and perceptions can be warped and not allow us to live with positive daringness and spirit.

Before the Jews came to the land of Eretz Yisroel , they had to go through, the verse details.. “Who led you through that great and awesome desert, [in which were] snakes, vipers and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water;“ Devarim 8:15

The Rebbe then highlights the meaning of each of these adjectives and the symbolism for us. It begins with the great desert.

The first step into the descent into exile is a desert; which is uncivilised and  people do not live. This represents a place which is inhospitable to a Jew. The first step in the trapping mentality is this: Jews and Yiddishkeit are small, the world oh that’s big and powerful.  When one makes an analysis and concludes that the word is big, its considerable, it’s pretty powerful. And the Jew is small, This is the beginning of exile. This is the beginning of the downward spiral.

The Rebbe then outlines that following adjectives as progressively more debilitating.

  • Awesome desert represents the fear that creeps in and the intimidation we feel even when in our own private lives. One then is constantly living with “ what will the world say?”
  • Snake – the venom is hot , the passion for the world consumes the passion I have for Yiddishkeit.
  • Vipers- I have no more passion in Yiddishkeit
  • Scorpion- total indifference and apathy to Yiddishkeit
  • Thirst without water- that even when attempts at inspiration, the person is not at all receptive to it and remains cut off from his true life force of Yiddishkeit

Just considering the world big in ones eyes, results  in total detachment and indifference to Hashem and Torah and Mitzvos.  With seeing the world as  impotent, we can have a crazy courage in ourselves as Jews and Yiddishkeit.


  • Be aware of the social pressure and find ways to rise above that
  • Connect to Hashem daily, by remembering His continuous presence
  • Remember that the world isn’t so big and strong, even though it looks that way

The Rebbe emboldened us to live as Jews confidently and courageously.This unshakeable stance calls one to be gutsy, to go against the tide of being “in” and to live Torah true Yiddishkeit with resoluteness. It might be our neighbour, an influencer on Instagram or a news site- it might be dressed chassidic or secular- but if it tries to weaken one’s resolve to do the mitzvos passionately, make good fences and stay true to ones essence.

Then, as the Rebbe says “but where a person is sincerely dedicated to his faith, such a person can only call forth respect and admiration.” and just as the Jews in Egypt tied a sheep to their beds in preparation for a sacrifice, and the sheep in Egypt was considered a deity and quite a brazen act – that was the merit for them to be redeemed, so too in the merit of not letting the mockers get in the way and making choices truest to us as Jews we will merit the ultimate redemption.