The path of righteousness is never fully aligned with any mass movement or popular belief. Indeed, over time, we learn an almost instinctive contrarianism: the pack has not been right in the past, so we distrust it going forward.
It occurred to me that there is actually a perfect vignette in the Torah that validates this approach. It runs as follows (Gen. 29):
There before [Jacob’s] eyes was a well in the open. Three flocks of sheep were lying there beside it, for the flocks were watered from that well. The stone on the mouth of the well was large. When all the flocks were gathered there, the stone would be rolled from the mouth of the well and the sheep watered; then the stone would be put back in its place on the mouth of the well. Jacob said to them… “It is still broad daylight, too early to round up the animals; water the flock and take them to pasture.” But they said, “We cannot, until all the flocks are rounded up; then the stone is rolled off the mouth of the well and we water the sheep.” While he was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father’s flock; for she was a shepherdess. And when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his uncle Laban, and the flock of his uncle Laban, Jacob went up and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well, and watered the flock.
Consider this story from this perspective: a stranger shows up, and is informed of the local custom. Any normal person in that situation respects his potential hosts, and tries not to alienate them. He would also be influenced by the peer pressure of the crowd; we know that such pressure is substantial.
But when he sees a girl he wants to impress, Jacob ignores everyone who is standing around and waiting, and he does what he thinks is right anyway. He rolls the rock off the well, feeds the flock, and, eventually, he also gets the girl.
Here’s the question that brought this episode to mind: why does G-d in the Torah repeatedly say that He is helping the Jewish people in order to fulfill a vow He made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? For that matter, why did G-d make such vows in the first place?
And I think the answer is right in front of us: the forefathers were willing to do what they thought was right even though they were strangers in a strange land, and even though a relationship with G-d was entirely alien to all the pagan religions and societies that surrounded them. They were willing to consistently follow their own path.
Note that our forefathers were not unaware of the crowd or ignored their way of thinking. Even in the above story, Jacob first engages in the men in conversation to understand what they were doing and why. Then he did what he thought was right even though it was different. And it was this repeated willingness to pursue what they thought was right that made them great men, men to whom G-d would swear a vow. And that is how our forefathers became the backbone of a society and religion that seeks what is right, not merely what is convenient or safe.
The world is facing a pandemic of groupthink and pitchfork-wielding mobs. It needs more of us, people who are willing to stand out. It is clear to me that G-d puts a great value on this attribute.
Here is a related thought: in the ancient world, men simply took women they fancied. We make fun of boys and men showing off to impress women, as if it is somehow childish and juvenile. But the Torah does no such thing. On the contrary: trying to earn the admiration of a woman is far nobler than merely throwing her over the saddle and riding off. The episode with Jacob “showing off” by rolling the rock off the mouth of the well is the first time the Torah tells us of a man trying to gain favor in a woman’s eyes, instead of merely imposing his will on her.
This matters. A relationship in which both people invest and try to impress the other is the backbone of any proper relationship with G-d.