Chapter 3, Mishna 14
The Living Dead
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Rabbi Dosa ben (son of) Hur'kenus said: Late morning sleep, wine in the
afternoon, the chatter of the youth, and sitting in the gathering places of
the ignorant -- drive a person out of the world."
The author of this mishna lists a number of time-wasting activities, all of
which are detrimental to productive living. For most of us, morning naps are
unnecessary. Many of us know how heavy our eyelids become in the afternoon.
Evening may also be the home stretch of an exhausting day. But morning is
not the time to be going back to bed (at least after overcoming the initial
hurdles) . (Alternatively, the commentators Rashi and Rabbeinu Yonah
understand this to refer to a person who oversleeps -- beyond the prescribed
time for morning prayers.)
Likewise, the afternoon is not the time to be inebriating oneself. I've seen
some older synagogue members down more morning schnapps than this writer
could ever handle (believe me, I've tried) , but perhaps a morning shot
gives a little livening jolt to the senses. It might even serve alternately
as a stimulant or relaxant in the evening (see commentary of Tiferes
Yisrael). Afternoon beverages, however, drug the mind and body when there
are still many productive hours to go.
Finally, the coarse, empty talk of the youth and the ignorant is
time-wasting at *best*, grossly unsuited for spirituality at worst.
This stands in contrast to scholars, whose very "light" talk is filled with
wisdom and value. There is certainly room for relaxed conversation and
banter in most everyone's life. Hardly anyone mouths nothing but prayer and
Torah study all the time. (There have always been pious Jews who would speak
only of sacred matters on the Sabbath.) However, the speech of someone who
lives with -- and lives for -- the Torah's values is never totally empty. If
it involves building relationships and sharing feelings and values it is not
so mundane. The Talmud states that the light speech of the scholars of the
Talmud is considered words of Torah (Eiruvin 54b). Such speech can be a
learning and a growing experience.
My teacher R. Yochanan Zweig (www.talmudicu.edu) once told me that it often
happens to him that while having a "casual" conversation with someone he is
struck all of a sudden: "*Now* I know what the Sages meant when they
said X...." Our words have great potential for building and expressing our
humanity and our souls. We must ever be wary that they not be cheapened into
a means of expressing our bodies and pettiest emotions. (See our discussion
on 1:17 (www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter1-17.html).)
R. Dosa's language -- "drive a person out of the world" -- is surprisingly
strong. He's clearly saying more than just that these activities are wrong
or harmful. They are so counterproductive as to actively remove a person
from the world of the living.
And this requires some analysis. Say someone squanders his time in one of
these ways. Is it as bad as an *actual* sin -- murder, adultery etc.?
There is practically no evil so heinous that it precludes repentance, yet
here G-d seems to be so furious at this time-waster as to actively take him
out of this world, not granting him a second chance to improve. But these
faults are not even sins per se! Everyone talks and sleeps at one time or
the other, and wine has a place in our religious ceremonies. These people
are just excessive. Why do their misdeeds warrant such vicious and
condemnatory singling out?
The answer is that these actions all have one aspect in common. They are not
committed out of a strong lust for evil. They are done primarily to "kill"
time. The average person does not need sleep in the morning, nor does he
have to drug himself in the afternoon. (We are, of course, not discussing
people with real substance abuse disorders.) A person who engages in such
activities is *seeking* ways to pass the time -- even to the extent of
inventing pastimes -- ones his mind and body clearly do not require. (The
contrast with today -- with our endless array of pointless electronic games
and gadgets, apps, chat groups, etc. -- has to be a classic case of "You
ain't seen nothing yet!")
And there is a terrible evil implicit in such behavior. I've discussed this
from a slightly different perspective not long ago (2:15
(www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter2-15d.html)), but I feel it
deserves mention here as well -- and I think it's a message Pirkei Avos too
intended to repeat. If a person sins out of temptation -- or even out of
laziness or carelessness, he knows he's done something wrong. He knows G-d
demands better of him and that he has failed. Hopefully, such a person will
own up to his mistakes, pick himself up, and start anew. This is life. We
all make mistakes. Life is a constant challenge, and the fact that we all
fail here and there does not mean the game is over. So long as we recognize
G-d has something greater in mind for us and there is more to life, we can
suffer setbacks but continue in the game of life.
The people in our mishna are not even playing the game.
People who sit around *inventing* ways to kill time are refusing to
face life in its true sense -- or to even admit there is a life to live.
They are perennially distracting themselves -- not allowing themselves to
think about what life is all about. Read the paper, follow your ball team,
go to work, return from work, watch TV: the years will go by in a mindless
fog. And that our mishna sees as tragic and unacceptable to an extreme.
Sinning does not "drive a person out of this world." Defeat and failure are
a part of all of our lives. But there is no room for self-imposed
brainlessness. We *must* take life seriously. Vacations? Great. A
little R&R? Fine. But devoting ourselves to idle gatherings, drugging
ourselves senseless, or sleeping off our lives in pathetic stupor? Such G-d
and the Sages can never countenance.
Again, R. Dosa does not come down so hard on sinners. Yes, four out of five
rabbis agree that sinning is not good for your spiritual health. (Maybe even
five out of five, but I can't speak for all denominations.) But you can be a
sinner and know something greater is expected of you. Idlers are committing
an evil even more sinister than transgressing a commandment. They are
refusing so much as to think about and accept the mission of life in the
first place. And there is no room for such people in the scheme of things,
in G-d's plan for mankind. Such people are not truly alive in the cosmic
sense. If you're for G-d, fine. If you're against Him... well, not so fine,
but at least you're in the picture. There is hope for you. But you must take
a side or life *literally* has no meaning. You *must* take a side!
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.