November 12, 2019

Combatting Sloth!

Classically, the vice of sloth (laziness) had two components:

1. acedia – a lack of caring or indifference
2. tristtitia – sadness, sorrow, or despair   

I would argue that the negative aspect of individualism that exists today in 21st century is furthered by acedia. The sociologist Robert Bellah says it well:

The individualism that’s on the rise recently in the U.S. is one of “What’s in it for me?” with immediate gratification of one’s needs coming before all other loyalties. Commitments like marriage only hold while they pay off….in earlier days the individualism in America was one that also honored community values. Today we have an ideology of individualism that simply encourages people to maximize personal advantage….considerations of the common good are increasing irrelevant.

A brilliant Midrash explains how the traps of laziness affect one’s learning:

They tell the sluggard “Your teacher is in a nearby city, go and learn Torah from him.” He responds “I fear a lion on the highway.” “Your teacher is in your own city.” I fear a lion in the streets.” Your teacher is near your home.” “I am afraid a lion is outside.” Your teacher is in a room inside your home.” “I am afraid that if I rise from the bed the door will be locked.” But the door is open.” “I need a little more sleep.”

How many of us just want “a little more sleep!” There is no viable excuse for anyone of us to not be addressing global poverty for at least 5 minutes each week (the time of clipping our nails) yet we manage to find 20 excuses while maintaining the memory of our soup-kitchen volunteer experience from 3 months earlier as our justification to comfort ourselves from facing our entrapment in sloth.

The great mussar teacher R. Chaim Luzzato (Mesillat Yesharim) paints the picture well: 

We see with our own eyes, on numerous occasions, how a person who is already cognizant of his duty and who already knows what is appropriate for the salvation of his soul and what his obligation is to his Creator, can nonetheless neglect his duty, though not because of a lack of awareness of his obligation or for any other reason. Rather, his lethargic indolence dominates him. And this is what it says (to him): “I’ll eat a bit” or “I’ll sleep a bit” or “It’s hard for me to get out of the house,” “I took off my shirt, how can I put it back on?” “It’s very hot outside,” “It’s very chilly,” or “rainy” and all such other pretexts and excuses that the mouths of the indolent are filled with.

It is, of course, not only the privileged and powerful who struggle with energizing themselves to transform the world. The oppressed are also plagued with this complex problem. The great Brazilian educator and author of the Pedagogy of the Oppressed Paulo Freire wrote:

The oppressed, having internalized the image of the oppressor and adapted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom. Freedom would require them to eject this image and replace it with autonomy and responsibility. Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift. It must be pursued constantly and responsibly. Freedom is not an ideal located outside of man; nor is it an idea which becomes myth. It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion.

Now this is certainly not sloth but rather a different example of one of the many inhibitors placed in our minds and souls that prevent liberation. Hegel called it our subordination to the consciousness of the master.

The Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas argued that sloth can be sinful in two situations: when one is in despair to perform what is spiritually good or when one is so regretful about their wrong-doings that it becomes preventative for them. I personally believe that we can think of a number of other psychological reasons outside of the “sin” category and perhaps our framework can be more positive focusing on alacrity and motivation rather than our sinfulness.

Psychologists have found that life satisfaction is 22 percent more likely for those with consistent minor accomplishments (victories) than for those who express interest only in massive accomplishments (Orlick 1998). Laziness is not conquered as a major life goal but every moment of our existence. We must seek little victories and the research shows this can lead to a more meaningful and happy life.

To this effect the Grah (Vilna Gaon) found it meaningful to argue that the reward of doing mitzvoth is so much greater than the effort expended.

How difficult it is to leave this world. In this world for a few kopecks a person can purchase tzitzit, and as a reward for that simple mitzvah merit to experience the Divine Presence in the World to Come. But in the Upper World, he can no longer earn anything, even if he exerts all his energies.

May we all be blessed with the passion, motivation, and will to conquer the inner force demanding complacency, conformity, and ease of existence.


Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of ” target=”_blank”>Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly