The words of the sages compiled in Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers have multiple layers of meaning. They can be applied to specific types of people at specific times but can also be applied to the general public in all times. For instance, the fifth Mishna of the third chapter states: “Rabbi Chaninah ben Chachinai said: He who stays awake at night and goes on his way alone and turns his heart to idle thoughts is liable for his life.”
Many of the commentaries on this Mishna understand it as a reminder to the general public to focus on Torah learning rather than letting one’s mind be distracted by idle thoughts. Late night and lonely roads have always been seen as dangerous (think of most horror movies). Mitzvot, such as studying the Torah, are considered to serve as protection, based on the idea espoused by Rabbi Eleazar that “Those sent [to perform] a religious duty will not suffer hurt, neither in their going nor in their returning” (Talmud Pesachim 8b). Thus, Rabbi Chaninah warns against letting one’s mind wander and idle while staying awake at night or walking alone.
The Mishna, however, can be much more than a warning about the dangers lurking at night. All people need “alone time.” In fact, many now advocate that, in our media-filled world, people need to make a particular effort to find specific time to be alone with their thoughts. However, for anyone who has experienced anxiety or even spent a few days worrying over a decision, late nights and lonely walks without focused thoughts are fertile territory for making a mountain out of a molehill.
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