CONCERNING THE FACTORS WHICH DETRACT FROM WATCHFULNESS AND THE WITHDRAWING OF ONESELF FROM THEM
THE FACTORS which detract from this trait and withdraw one from it are three: The first is worldly occupation and involvement, the second, laughter and levity, and the third, evil companionship. We will discuss each one individually.
We have already discussed worldly occupation and involvement. When a man is involved in worldly affairs, his thoughts are bound by the chains of the burden that weighs upon them and it is impossible for them to become concerned with his deeds. The Sages, may Peace be upon them, said, in their awareness of this fact (Avoth 4.10), "Minimize your occupations and occupy yourself with Torah." A person must occupy himself to a certain extent for the sake of a livelihood, but not to the extent where his Divine service is interfered with. It is in respect to this that we were commanded to set aside times for Torah study. We have already mentioned that it is such study which is the prime requirement for Watchfulness; as stated by R. Pinhas, "Torah brings one to Watchfulness." Without it, Watchfulness will not be attained. As our Sages of blessed memory have stated (Avoth 2.6), "An ignoramus cannot be a saint." This is true because the very Creator, Blessed be His name, who invested man with an evil inclination, created the Torah as an antidote to it (Kiddushin 30b). It is self-evident that if the Creator has fashioned for this affliction only this remedy, it is impossible under any circumstances that a person be cured of it through any other means. One who thinks to save himself without it is mistaken, and will recognize his mistake only in the end, when he dies in sin. For the evil inclination exerts great force against a person, and, without his being aware of it, grows and waxes stronger, and comes to dominate him. A man may resort to all the devices imaginable - if he does not adopt the remedy which was created for him, namely, the Torah, as I have written, he will neither recognize nor feel the intensification of his illness until he dies in sin and his soul is lost.
To what is this analogous? To the case of a sick man, who, consulting doctors and having his sickness correctly diagnosed and prescribed for, nevertheless, possessing no previous knowledge of medicine, abandons their prescription and takes instead whatever medicine he happens to think of. Is there any doubt that he will die?
The same is true in our case. No one understands the disease of the evil inclination and the potentialities inherent within it but the Creator who fashioned it. And He Himself cautioned us that the only antidote to it is Torah. Who, then, can abandon it and take anything else and expect to live? The darkness of earthiness will advance upon him degree by degree without his sensing it, until he finds himself sunk in evil and so far removed from truth that it will not even occur to him to seek it. If, however, he occupies himself with Torah, then, when he sees its ways, its commandments and its warnings, there will awaken within him responses which will lead him to the ways of good. As our Sages of blessed memory have said (Yerushalmi Chagigah 1:7), "Would that they left me and kept my Torah, for the radiance within it would return them to good."
Also included in this category is the setting aside of times for consideration of one's deeds, with an eye towards their correction, as I wrote above. In addition to this, he who is wise will not permit any time that may remain from his affairs to go lost, but he will immediately seize it, and not let it go, in order to employ it towards self-improvement and the betterment of his Divine service.
The deterrent that we have been discussing, though more common than the others, is the easiest to escape, for those who wish to escape it. The second deterrent, however, laughter and levity, is very severe. He who is immersed in it is as one who is immersed in a great ocean, from which it is extremely difficult to escape. For laughter affects a person's heart in such a manner that sense and reason no longer prevail in him, so that he becomes like a drunkard or a simpleton, whom, because they cannot accept direction, it is impossible to advise or direct. As was said by King Solomon, may Peace be upon him (Ecclesiastes 2:2), "About laughter I have said, "It is silly,' and about happiness, "What does it do?"' And our Sages of blessed memory have said (Avoth 3.13), "Laughter and lightheadedness motivate a man towards illicit relations." For even though every reasoning individual recognizes the gravity of this kind of sin and his heart is afraid to approach it because of the vividness of the impression that has stamped itself into his mind, of the truly terrible nature of the offense and the severity of its punishment, still laughter and lightheadedness draw him on little by little and lead him closer and closer to the stage where fear leaves him little by little, degree by degree, until finally he reaches the sin itself and commits it. Why is this so? Just as the essence of Watchfulness involves applying one's heart to things, so the essence of laughter is the turning away of one's heart from just, attentive thinking, so that thoughts of fearing God do not enter one's heart at all.
Consider the great severity and destructive power of levity. Like a shield smeared with oil, which wards off arrows and causes them to fall to the ground, not permitting them to reach the bearer's body, is levity in the face of reproof and rebuke. For with one bit of levity and with a little laughter a person can cast from himself the great majority of the awakenings and impressions that a man's heart stimulates and effects within itself upon his seeing or hearing things which arouse him to an acconting and an examination of his deeds. The force of levity flings everything to the ground so that no impression whatsoever is made upon Him. This is due not to the weakness of the forces playing upon him, nor to any lack of understanding on his part, but to the power of levity, which obliterates all facets of moral evaluation and fear of God. Touching this the Prophet Isaiah "screamed like a crane," for he saw that it was this which left no place for his exhortations to make an impression and which destroyed all hope for the sinners. As it is stated (Isaiah 28:22), "And now do not engage in levity lest your bonds be strengthened." And our Sages have pronounced (Avodah Zarah 18b) that one who is given to levity brings suffering upon himself. Scripture itself explicity states (Proverbs 19:29), "Judgments are appropriate for the light-headed." Indeed, this is dictated by reason; for one who is influenced by thought and studies does not require bodily punishment, for he will leave off sinning without it by virtue of the thoughts of repentance which will arise in his heart through what he will read or hear of moral judgments and exhortations. But the light-headed, who because of the force of their levity are not influenced by exhortations cannot be corrected except through punitive judgments. For their levity will not be as effective in warding off these as it is in warding off ethical appeals. In accordance with the severity of the sin and its consequences is the True Judge severe in His punishment. As our Sages of blessed memory have taught us (Avodah Zarah 18b), "The punishment for levity is extremely severe; it begins with suffering and ends with destruction, as it is said (Isaiah 28:22), "Lest your bonds be strengthened, for I have heard destruction and cutting off..."
The third deterrent to Watchfulness is evil companionship, that is, the companionship of fools and sinners, as Scripture states (Proverbs 13:20), "And the friend of fools will be broken." Very often we see that even after the truth of a man's responsibility for Divine service and Watchfulness has impressed itself upon a person, he weakens or commits certain trespasses in order not to be mocked by his friends or to be able to mix freely with them. This is the intent of Solomon's warning (Proverbs 24:21), "Do not mix with those who make changes." If someone says to you (Kethuvoth 17a), "A man's mind should always be associated with his fellow men," tell him, "This refers to people who conduct themselves as human beings and not to people who conduct themselves as animals." Solomon again warns (Proverbs 14:7), "Withdraw yourself from a fool." And King David said in this connection (Psalms 1: 1), "Happy is the man who did not walk...... upon which our Sages of blessed memory have commented (Avodah Zarah 18b), "If he walked he will eventually stand, and if he stood, he will eventually sit." And again (Psalms 26:4), "I have not sat with false men ...I despised the society of the wicked ..." What a person must do, then, is to purify and cleanse himself, and keep his feet from the paths of the crowd who are immersed in the foolishness of the time, and turn them to the precincts of God and His dwelling places. As David himself concludes (Ibid. 6), "I will wash my hands in cleanliness, and I will go round Your altar, O God." If there are among his companions those who subject him to ridicule, he should not take it to heart, but, to the contrary, should ridicule them and shame them. Let him consider whether, if he had the opportunity of acquiring a great deal of money, he would keep from undertaking what such acquisition entailed so as to avoid the ridicule of his companions. How much more averse should he be to losing his soul for the sake of sparing himself ridicule. In this connection our Sages of blessed memory exhorted us (Aroth 5.23), "Be fierce as a leopard to do the will of your Father in heaven." And David said (Psalms 119:46), "And I will speak of your testimonies before kings and I will not be ashamed." Even though most of the kings of his time occupied themselves with, and were wont to converse upon grandiose schemes and pleasures, and we would, therefore, tend to expect that David, himself a king, would be ashamed, while in their presence, to speak of ethical questions and Torah instead of discussing great feats and the pleasures of men such as they - in spite of all this, David was not in the least perturbed, and his heart was not seduced by these vanities, because he had already attained to the truth. He states explicitly (Psalms 119:46), "And I will speak of your testimonies before kings and I will not be ashamed." Isaiah, likewise, said (Isaiah 50:7), "1 therefore made my face like flint and I knew that I would not be ashamed."