Parashat Lech Lecha: Was Abraham an influencer?

Influencing others becomes so addictive that our personal behavior is, itself, influenced by our overwhelming desire to influence others. Are influencers the ultimate influencees? 

 INFLUENCERS: NOT a question of talent but of garndering ‘likes.’ (photo credit: George Pagan III/Unsplash)
INFLUENCERS: NOT a question of talent but of garndering ‘likes.’
(photo credit: George Pagan III/Unsplash)

Abraham was selected by God to transform a dark pagan world by educating them about a “one God.” For thousands of years, God’s presence was obscured from a lost world that had fallen into moral disarray. Finally, one man discovered God and he was determined to inspire his fellow human beings to a life of religion and meaning. 

Abraham’s first teaching opportunity arose in the aftermath of a bloody battle. For 25 years, the world was engulfed in a vicious conflict, incited by a large-scale rebellion against four oppressive tyrants. Abraham was slowly dragged onto the battlefield, in part to quell the violence, and in part to rescue his nephew Lot who had been taken as a prisoner of war. Abraham liberated his nephew and rescued the entire kingdom of Sdom from these belligerent and repressive monarchs.

As was common practice in the ancient era, Abraham, a military hero, was offered lavish financial compensations as well as human reward in the form of the citizens of Sdom, who would now be reassigned to him and become members of his clan. 

Abraham lifts his hands to heaven and forswears any reward or any “people transfer,” refusing even to accept something as meager as a shoestring. This disavowal of reward is both noble-spirited and expected. Abraham aspires to establish a new moral standard, and the best way to begin is by avoiding any trace of greediness or desire for profit. 

Greed is a dark and powerful human instinct, especially when we sense the opportunity for free profits. The thought of profiting upon the misfortunes of others is repugnant, and this move would sabotage Abraham’s lofty moral agenda. To memorialize Abraham’s moral courage, we wear string-laden tzitzit as a constant reminder to live within ourselves and within our resources rather than chasing unbridled consumerist longing.

 ABRAHAM TENDING his flock.  (credit: Wikimedia Commons) ABRAHAM TENDING his flock. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Though his frugal rejection of war loot is admirable, Abraham’s refusal to naturalize the citizens of Sdom is surprising. The residents of the corrupt city of Sdom would soon be incinerated in a hail of sulphuric fire and heavenly flames. 

This is a perfect opportunity for Abraham to save the souls of condemned sinners and convert them to Judaism. Abraham stumbles upon a gift-wrapped opportunity to save people from a looming disaster, yet he takes a pass. His decision is so odd and so incongruous with his mission, that the Talmud itself critiques him. What could possibly have convinced Abraham to reject these potential converts?

Education or manipulation

After his heroic rescue mission, Abraham enjoys extraordinary popularity. He was heralded by kings and lauded by grateful soldiers whom he had protected on the battlefield. Most of all, the average common citizen was indebted to Abraham for saving their lives. 

If Abraham parlays his influence to inculcate his new religious ideas, those ideas may not be authentically incorporated. How genuine would people’s acceptance of Abraham’s ideology be if they were coerced to consent because Abraham was so popular and because he enjoyed a position of such authority? Given his wild popularity, the people may sheepishly follow his lead, but it is unlikely that they would deeply internalize his new notions about religion and morality. ​Moreover, is it even fair for Abraham to take advantage of his stature and rising popularity to indoctrinate others? Using our moral authority or our popularity to influence others aggressively can be intrusive and manipulative. It is one thing to suggest ideas or even to assert our beliefs passionately. However, when our audience has no choice but to accept our opinions, we must be exceedingly careful about how we offer our opinions and how strongly we peddle our influence. 

It may work in the short term but rarely yields genuine personal growth. Even when this approach is successful, it raises several moral red flags. Abraham pauses before he exerts his popularity and influence upon the impressionable people of Sdom and perhaps, as the Talmud implies, he made an incorrect decision. However, his moral quandary was vital for preserving his moral integrity. 

These are very delicate questions about the manner in which we convince people of our ideas. When we are deeply committed to values, we share our opinions with others, hoping to persuade them to adopt our views. However, we must also check ourselves against manipulating or deceiving others. 

Do we spread our influence in a respectful and dignified manner that doesn’t insult the intelligence of our listeners? Do we abuse our positions of authority to influence other people, thereby robbing them of their autonomy and personal discretion? There are no easy answers to this dilemma, but these are important questions worth pondering – especially for educators and rabbis.

Information or influence 

Abraham’s dilemma also sheds light on our current cultural moment. The Internet, and social media in particular, have empowered us to spread our influence to larger audiences than ever before. At best, the Internet makes us better informed, as it allows information to flow more freely and efficiently. The Internet is a portal that grants us access to wisdom, knowledge, and expertise which we don’t personally possess. 

However, social media doesn’t just better inform us; it also powerfully influences us. Social media has manufactured a new public figure called an influencer, who aims to shape our opinions and behavior. Generally, “influencers” do not possess particular talent or unique expertise but manage to get our attention as they continuously garner followers and “likes.” Social media empowers them to impact our purchase decisions, our thought, our opinions, and our social and political behavior. 

We thoughtlessly submit ourselves to the influence of people who possess nothing more than celebrity or notoriety. Often, influencers pontificate about topics of which they are completely ignorant, preaching about politics, culture or religion. 

Additionally, by submitting ourselves to the influence of others, we abdicate our freedom of decision, often falling prey to group-think and herd mentality. Ironically, the Internet, which was meant to democratize information and empower personal autonomy, often shrinks our freedom of thought and opinion. 

Addicted to influence 

Sadly, our culture celebrates the phenomenon of influencing others. We start to define ourselves and our worth based on our capacity to influence others, rather than on our principles, character or achievements. As we thirst for more and more influence, we become more dependent upon public approval for our self-esteem. We act provocatively just to draw attention to ourselves and “feed the monster” in our attempts to satiate our desire for public attention. 

In a tragic irony, the “influencer” becomes the “influenced.” Influencing others becomes so addictive that our personal behavior is, itself, influenced by our overwhelming desire to influence others. Are influencers the ultimate influencees? 

Religion is about inherent value

Religious people look for inherent value and not “social value” or value based on public opinion. We construct lifestyles that should be internally self-sufficient and should not require external social validation. 

The validity and integrity of a religious life should never be a product of how much that lifestyle influences other people. Believing deeply in the nobility and meaning of a religious life, we certainly desire others to be similarly inspired, but our own evaluation and appreciation of religion must come from within and not from the impact our religious values have upon others.

Too much influence-peddling can distract us from inner validation, which lies at the core of religious meaning. Influence can often degrade meaning. Influence comes and goes. Meaning is built to last.  ■

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University, as well as an MA in English literature from the City University of New York.