Question: I was speaking to someone who knows Matisyahu, a Hasidic performer. One thing he remembers Matisyahu showing him is somewhere in the Torah where it says “do not let the world influence you, but let the world be influenced by you.” Can you please reference where in the Torah this can be found?
Answer: Thank you for your question. As far as I know that inspiring quote from Mattisyahu is not actually in the Torah, or any of the main Jewish texts. I suspect it is something that the last Lubavitche Rebbe said, which was passed on to Mattisyahu by his chassidic teacher.
However, the message is one which is clear from the Torah. Two stories in the book of Genesis seem to reflect this idea. Abraham and Sarah left everything (i.e. all the negative influences) behind them when they came to Israel to begin again. The verse says that they came with the ‘souls that they made in Charan’ (Genesis 12; 5). The Talmud comments on this that it refers to the people that they brought closer to an relationship with G-d. In other words, while still steeped in the culture and influences of Charan and Ur Kasdim, they were able to influence a great number of other people.
Secondly, the story of Joseph, who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers. The whole time that he was there, whether as a slave in the home of Potiphar, or as the assistant to the jail keeper, or as Pharaoh’s main adviser, he always rejected assimilation into Egyptian society, and remained immune to the influences around him. He remained the ‘Hebrew’ (Genesis 41; 12) despite being second to the throne. The Talmud tells us that he even maintained all of the kosher laws and other Jewish rituals while there. Yet at the same time he influenced (and saved from starvation) the entire known world. His influence was such that he was known for many generations after his death.
I think this is the message that Mattisyahu is trying to put across. To influence others without being influenced by them. This is also one way of viewing all of Jewish history – the tremendous influence that Jews have had on the world for the past several millenia (including being the basis of both Christianity and Islam) while maintaining their own unique Jewish heritage and tradition.
Rabbi David Sedley