CONCERNING THE TRAIT OF ZEAL
AFTER WATCHFULNESS comes Zeal, Watchfulness pertaining to the negative commandments and Zeal to the positive, in accordance with the idea of "Depart from evil and do good (Psalms 34:15)." "Zeal," as the name implies, signifies alacrity in the pursuit and fulfillment of mitzvoth. As expressed by our Sages of blessed memory (Pesachim 4a), "The zealous advance themselves towards mitzvoth." That is, just as it requires great intelligence and much foresight to save oneself from the snares of the evil inclination and to escape from evil so that it does not come to rule us and intrude itself into our deeds, so does it require great intelligence and foresight to take hold of mitzvoth, to acquire them for ourselves, and not to lose them. For just as the evil inclination attempts, with the devices at its command, to cast a man into the nets of sin, so does it seek to prevent him from performing mitzvoth, and to leave Him devoid of them. If a man weakens and is lazy and does not strengthen himself to pursue mitzvoth and to hold onto them, he will certainly lack them.
A person's nature exercises a strong downward pull upon him. This is so because the grossness which characterizes the substance of earthiness keeps a man from desiring exertion and labor. One who wishes, therefore, to attain to the service of the Creator, may His Name be blessed, must strengthen himself against his nature and be zealous. If he leaves himself in the hands of his downward-pulling nature, there is no question that he will not succeed. As the Tanna says "Be fierce as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer and strong as a lion to do the will of your Father in heaven." Our Sages of blessed memory have numbered Torah and good deeds among those things which require self-fortification (Berachoth 32b). And Scripture plainly states (Joshua 1:7), "Strengthen yourself and be very courageous to observe to do according to all the Torah which Moses My servant commanded you." One who seeks to transform his nature completely requires great strengthening. Solomon repeatedly exhorts us concerning this, recognizing the evil of laziness and the greatness of the loss that results from it. He says (Proverbs 6:10), "A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep and your poverty is suddenly upon you and your want as an armed man." The lazy man, though not actively evil, produces evil through his very inactivity. We read further (Proverbs 18:9), "Also he who slackens in his work is a brother to the Destroyer." Though he is not the Destroyer who commits the evil with his own hands, let him not think that he is far-removed from him - he is his blood-brother.
A portrayal of a daily occurrence furnishes us with a clear idea of the lazy man's wickedness (Proverbs 24:30.). "I passed by the field of a lazy man and by the vineyard of a man without sense and it was overgrown with thistles; its face was covered with nettles... And I beheld; I put my heart to it; I saw; I took instruction, a little sleep, a little slumber ... and suddenly your poverty is upon you ..." Aside from the surface description, whereby we are provided with an unquestionably true account of what happens to the lazy man's field, a very beautiful interpretation has been put forth by our Sages of blessed memory (Yalkut Shimoni Mishlei 961): " "and it was overgrown with thistles' - he seeks the interpretation of a passage and does not find it; ,its face was covered' - because of his not having labored in the Law, he sits in judgment and declares the pure, unclean and the impure, clean, and he breaches the fences of the Scholars. What is this man's punishment? Solomon tells us (Ecclesiastes 10:8) : "One who breaches a fence will be bitten by a snake.' " That is, the evil of the lazy man does not come all at once, but little by little, without his recognizing and sensing it. He is pulled from evil to evil until he finds himself sunk in evil's very depths. He begins by not expending the amount of effort which could be expected of him. This causes him not to study Torah as he should; and because of this, when he later does come to study it, he lacks the requisite understanding. It would be bad enough if his evil were to end here, but it does not. It grows even worse; for in his desire, notwithstanding, to interpret the section or chapter under consideration, he adduces interpretations which are not in accordance with the law, destroys the truth and perverts it, trespasses upon ordinances, and breaches the fences. His end, like that of all who breach fences, is destruction. Solomon continues (Ibid.), "And I beheld; I put my heart to it" - I thought upon this thing and I saw the terrible nature of the evil in it; it is like a poison which continues to spread, little by little, its workings unnoticed, until death results. This is the meaning of "A little sleep ... and suddenly your poverty is upon you as an armed man ..."
We see with our own eyes how often a person neglects his duty in spite of his awareness of it and in spite of his having come to recognize as a truth what is required for the salvation of his soul and what is incumbent upon him in respect to his Creator. This neglect is due not to an inadequate recognition of his duty nor to any other cause but the increasing weight of his laziness upon him; so that he says, "I will eat a little," or "I will sleep a little," or "It is hard for me to leave the house," or "I have taken off my shirt, how can I put it on again?" (Canticles 5:3). "It is very hot outside," "It is very cold," or "It is raining too hard" and all the other excuses and pretenses that the mouth of fools is full of. Either way, the Torah is neglected, Divine service dispensed with, and the Creator abandoned. As Solomon said (Ecclesiastes 10:18), "Through laziness the roof sinks in, and through the hands' remaining low, the house leaks." If his laziness is held up to him, the lazy man will doubtless come back with many quotations culled from the Sages and from Scripture, and with intellectual arguments, all supporting, according to his misguided mind, his leniency with himself (and all allowing him to remain in the repose of his laziness). He fails to see that these arguments and explanations stem not from rational evaluation, but from his laziness, which, when it grows strong within him, inclines his reason and intelligence to them, so that he does not pay heed to what is said by the wise and by those who possess sound judgment. It is in this connection that Solomon cried (Proverbs 26:16), "A lazy man is wiser in his own eyes than seven sages!" Laziness does not even permit one to attend to the words of those who reprove him; he puts them all down for blunderers and fools, reckoning only himself wise.
A principle that experience has shown to be of central importance to the work of Separation is that whatever tends to lighten one's burden must be examined carefully. For although such alleviation is sometimes justified and reasonable, it is most often a deceitful prescription of the evil inclination, and must, therefore, be subjected to much analysis and investigation. If, after such an examination, it still seems justified, then it is certainly acceptable.
In fine, a man must greatly strengthen himself, and power himself with Zeal to perform the mitzvoth, casting from himself the hindering weight of laziness. The angels were extolled for their Zeal, as is said of them (Psalms 103:20), "Mighty in power, they do His word, to listen to the voice of His word," and (Ezekiel 1:14), "And the living creatures ran and returned, as streaks of lightning." A man is a man and not an angel, and it is therefore impossible for him to attain to the strength of an angel, but he should surely strive to come as close to that level as his nature allows. King David, grateful for his portion of Zeal, said (Psalms 119:60), "I was quick; I did not delay in keeping Your mitzvoth."