The Greatest Protection: Ethics of the Fathers, 3:5
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The Greatest Protection: Ethics of the Fathers, 3:5

The Greatest Protection: Ethics of the Fathers, 3:5

Should we be afraid of things that go bump in the night?

by

Rabbi Chanina ben Chachinai said: One who stays awake at night or travels on the road alone, but turns his heart to idleness -- behold, he bears guilt for his soul. Ethics of the Fathers, 3:5

Good and evil. Light and dark. Right and wrong. Peace and discord. Mercy and judgment.

Long before oriental philosophy conceived the yin and yang duality that combines to form the totality of the universe, the patriarchs of the Jewish people had begun to define the complementary attributes of the Creator. God's right hand -- His dominant attribute -- is mercy; God's left hand -- His secondary attribute -- is justice. Together, these apparently irreconcilable characteristics achieve an unfathomable synthesis that forms the absolute unity of the Almighty.

What's more, the divine attributes of mercy and judgment describe the template to which every symbiotic relationship within nature must conform. All that is good in the world is an expression of God's mercy; all that appears evil is allowed free reign by God's judgment, which guarantees human free will by reserving ultimate justice for the World to Come. When peace reigns over society it is though the influence of mercy, which guides man to subjugate his own self-interest for the benefit of the whole; violence and chaos result when mankind's sense of justice compels every man to act according to what is right and just in his own eyes.

Daytime symbolizes the clarity born of the divine light that can illuminate man's inner eye to see the wisdom of mercy; nighttime symbolizes the confusion of spiritual darkness when man demands that the world conforms to his own sense of justice.

Before the advent of electricity, most of human society regarded night as a time when good people remained in their homes. The typical laborer worked from sunrise to sunset and had little time, energy, or inclination for socializing. "Nightlife" was not an option for the masses, and would not have been looked upon with favor had it been any more practical. Indeed, within the Jewish community night offered a welcome respite from the demands and exertions of the day, an opportunity for physical and psychological relaxation. It also offered, for those not consumed by physical exhaustion after the day's labors, a priceless opportunity to pursue undisturbed matters of the spirit by applying themselves to the study of Torah.

BY THE SWEAT OF HIS BROW?

Modern white-collar Man, who spends his days toiling intellectually, gets off work and seeks rejuvenation for his body at the gym, on the tennis court, or at the night club. Historically, the Jew who labored physically looked forward to the end of the work day as a time to seek rejuvenation for his soul.

Night time, then -- especially in the winter months when darkness brought an early end to the workday -- provided the Jew with time to contemplate his relationship with his Creator through the study of Torah. By trading the physical toil of the fields for the spiritual and intellectual toil that opened his mind and his heart to the nature of the Almighty, the Jew transformed the soul-numbing work of the day into a soul-awaking pursuit for the night.

For a person to forgo the physical rejuvenation of sleep and remain idle, without applying himself to the spiritual rejuvenation of Torah study, is to demonstrate a profound disregard for the opportunity to transcend the mundane and draw close to his Creator. Through such disregard he may then leave himself vulnerable to the attribute of judgment that rules over the night and the darkness.

Conversely, involvement in Torah tempers the harsh judgment of darkness with spiritual light of divine wisdom that enables man to cultivate divine mercy within himself. But to whittle away the hours of darkness without such protection is indeed to endanger one's life, both in this world and the next -- to bear guilt for his soul.

Moreover, should we lack the sensitivity to recognize the hazards of idling away the nighttime in the apparent safety of our own homes, Rabbi Chanina offers us a point of reference to raise our awareness of the consequences of our actions.

THE ROAD NOT TAKEN

In biblical and Talmudic times, travel between cities was not only a slow, arduous undertaking; it was profoundly dangerous as well. Wild animals and highwaymen posed so real and imminent a threat to travelers that our sages enacted a special prayer for wayfarers to recite at the beginning of every journey, and they abridged the thrice-daily Amidah prayer to hurry travelers on their way with a minimum of delay and exposure to the dangers of the road.

Aside from the obvious hazards of robbers and beasts, the road posed a different kind of threat. The proper place for any Jew is as a member of his community, and the collective merit of the congregation is one of the cornerstones supporting the institution of communal prayer. The simple acts of kindness exchanged daily by neighbors create a protection from the divine prosecutor, and shield every Jew from physical and spiritual harm.

The Jew who travels alone therefore forfeits the protective merit of the community, isolating himself from the collective and thereby exposing himself to divine judgment at a time when he is already in a situation of danger. Although his relatively minor transgressions would not normally invoke divine judgment against him, they may indeed interfere with the divine protection he needs to guard him from the inherent hazards of the road.

The solution, Rabbi Chanina teaches, is the same as the solution for the one who stays up into the late hours of the night. Whether alone in darkness, when the attribute of undiluted judgment reigns supreme, or alone on the road, without the protection of the collective merit of the community, the Jew will ultimately be held to account for the smallest transgressions unless he reaches for the divine protection of Torah study.

Ultimately, Rabbi Chanina teaches, it is by isolating himself from his community, whether in time or space, that a Jew places himself in a situation of danger. The greatest protection, whether for us as individuals or for the community as a whole, comes from recognizing the Torah as means through which we connect ourselves to our fellow Jews, establish peace in our homes and our communities, and merit the benevolence of the divine attribute of mercy.

Published: July 1, 2006


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Visitor Comments: 1

(1) Barry E. Lerner, July 2, 2006 12:00 AM

Torah vs community

While there are many good reasons to study Torah, the danger in separation from the imaginary "merit of the community" is not one of them. Social, emotional or religious separation from the community is disadvantageous, but simply traveling out of town does not change anything. One does the right thing, whether surrounded by coreligionists or in the isolation of travel, even when one perceives neither God nor man to be watching.

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