The Talmud in Berakhot 60a relates that Rabbi Ishmael ben Yossi was once in the market of Jerusalem when he saw one of his students. Rabbi Ishmael noticed that the student appeared to be frightened and anxious.
“You must be a sinner,” the rabbi observed. “As it says, ‘The sinners in Zion are afraid’ (Isaiah 33:14).”
Why should fear and apprehension be a sign of sin?
When discussing the trait of bitachon — to place our trust in God — the Sages cited chapter 112 of Psalms. This chapter depicts the righteous individual as a person with unwavering faith in God, one whose life is unburdened by baseless 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 that lack of fear is both an expression of genuine trust in God and a reward for one’s righteousness.
The renowned scholar Hillel lived according to this principle. Once, when returning home from a journey, Hillel heard troubling sounds of commotion coming from the town. The rabbi, however, was not worried. “I am confident that it is not in my house,” he said.
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 everything that happens is Divinely ordained. If our heart is truly “steadfast in trusting God,” there is no place for fear and anxiety. Everything is ultimately from God; in the larger scheme, everything has its place and purpose.
The most debilitating aspects of suffering are not the physical but the psychological. When we are able to see the world as it is, and yet remain with complete trust in God, even our hardships are not true afflictions. We may be content with our portion, able to face life’s challenges with composure and grace.
But for those who are resentful and embittered, troubles await at every turn. One cannot be composed and content without learning to flow with life and accept its ever-changing vicissitudes.
According to Rabbi Ishmael, unwarranted fearfulness is a sign of sin. What is the connection between them?
Fear arises when the soul finds itself at odds with the outside world. We do not fear that which is normal and expected. One who is unburdened by guilt and maintains a healthy connection with society will not suffer from excessive worries and fears.
Those whose lives are beset with strife and unethical conduct, on the other hand, have strayed from the proper path and lost their standing in society. Due to their estranged lifestyle, they 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.
In the incident of the anxious student, the young man replied to the rabbi, “But does not Scripture also praise fear? As it says, ‘Fortunate is the person who is always afraid’ (Proverbs 28:14).”
Rabbi Ishmael, however, rejected the student’s argument. “That verse,” he explained, “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 is anxiety appropriate in the context of 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 virtuous lives may be concerned about losing this extraordinary gift.
Unlike other fears, however, this concern need not disturb our equilibrium. There is an obvious way to neutralize it: dedicated effort to study and review.
In the realm of Torah study, dissatisfaction is a positive trait. This attitude motivates us to work toward 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 us. Rather, it helps us overcome laziness and complacency, ensuring that we are not satisfied with the spiritual attainments we have already acquired. With this mindset, our spirits are filled with resolve, as we continue to advance in our spiritual efforts.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. II, pp. 324-325 on Berakhot 60a)