The Talmud in Berakhot 60a relates the following story:
Rabbi Ishmael ben Yossi was once in the market of Jerusalem when he saw one of his students walking behind him. Rabbi Ishmael noticed that the student appeared to be frightened and anxious.
“You must be a sinner,” he remarked. “As it says, ‘The sinners in Zion are afraid’ (Isaiah 33:14).”
“But does not Scripture also praise fear?” countered the student. “As it says, ‘Fortunate is the person who is always afraid’ (Proverbs 28:14).”
Rabbi Ishmael rejected the student’s argument. “No, that verse refers to Torah.” Regarding Torah study, it is proper to be vigilant, lest we forget what we have learned. This concern ensures that we constantly review our studies.
Why should fear and apprehension be a sign of sin? Why are such feelings only appropriate with regard to Torah study?
When teaching about the trait of bitachon, placing one’s trust in God, the Sages quoted Psalm 112. This chapter describes the righteous individual as one with an unwavering faith in God, one whose life is unburdened by fears and worries:
“מִשְּׁמוּעָה רָעָה לֹא יִירָא; נָכוֹן לִבּוֹ, בָּטֻחַ בַּ-ה'.”
“He will not fear evil tidings; his heart is steadfast in trusting God.” (Psalms 112:7)
The Sages explained the first part of the verse — “he will not fear evil tidings” — in two ways. Lack of fear is an expression of genuine trust in God. Additionally, it is a reward for one’s righteousness.
The famed scholar Hillel lived his life according to this teaching. Once, when returning home from a journey, he heard troubling sounds of uproar coming from the town. Hillel remarked, “I am confident that it is not in my house” (Berakhot 60a).
What is the source of this attitude of confidence and equanimity?
Bitachon is based on the realization that even that which appears to be troublesome should not unduly worry us. We recognize that all events in this world are Divinely ordained. If one’s heart is genuinely “steadfast in trusting God,” there is no place for fear and anxiety. Everything is ultimately from God; in the larger scheme, nothing is absolute, unredeemable evil.
The most debilitating aspects of suffering are not physical but psychological. When a person can see the world as it is, yet remain full of trust in God, even his hardships are not true afflictions. Such a person is content with his portion, and is able to face life’s challenges with composure and grace.
But for those who are resentful and embittered, troubles await at every corner. One cannot be composed and content without learning to flow with life and accept its ever-changing vicissitudes.
What is the connection between fear and sin?
Fear is the result of a state when the soul is at odds with the outside world. We do not fear that which is normal and expected. One who is unburdened with sins and maintains a healthy connection with society will not suffer from excessive worries and fears.
Those whose lives are beset with conflict and unethical conduct, on the other hand, have strayed from the proper path and lost their standing in society. Due their estranged lifestyle, such individuals suffer from anxiety and apprehension.
Furthermore, those living an ethical life are following the moral dictates of the intellect; while those who abandon the path of reason are subject to the whims of the imagination and its fears.
Why did Rabbi Ishmael teach that there is one sphere of life where anxiety is appropriate — regarding Torah study? Why should we be afraid of losing our Torah knowledge?
There is no reason to fear that we might lose something that we deserve, as long as we act appropriately. But when aspiring to acquire qualities that are beyond our natural level — such as the Torah, which transcends the ordinary human level — there is room for concern. Even those who live their lives with integrity, following the dictates of the intellect without suffering from imagined fears, may be concerned lest they lose this extraordinary gift.
Unlike other fears, however, this concern need not disturb our equilibrium. There is an obvious method to neutralize it: dedicated effort to study and review.
Only with regard to Torah study is dissatisfaction a positive trait. This feeling motivates us to work towards greater spiritual perfection — a goal that can never be attained, since there is no end to spiritual growth. As long as we recognize that this sense of discontentment is meant to prevent stagnation and stimulate further growth, this concern will not discourage our spirits. Rather, it helps us overcome any lazy tendencies, ensuring that we are not satisfied with spiritual attainments already acquired. With this awareness, our spirits are filled with joy and resolve, as we continue to grow and succeed in our spiritual endeavors.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. II, pp. 324-325)