The Frightened Student
The Talmud [Brachot 60a] relates that Rabbi Ishmael ben Yossi was once in the market of Zion when he saw one of his students walking behind him.
Rabbi Ishmael noticed that the student looked frightened. "You must be a sinner," he remarked, "for it says, 'The sinners in Zion are afraid' [Isaiah 33:14]."
"But is it not written," countered the student, "'Fortunate is the person who is always afraid'?" [Proverbs 28:14]
Rabbi Ishmael, however, rejected this proof-text. "That verse refers to Torah study," he explained. Regarding Torah, it is proper to be vigilant lest we forget our learning. This concern ensures that we constantly review.
Why should fear be a sign of sin? Why is this emotion only appropriate with regard to Torah study?
Trust in God
When teaching about the trait of bitachon, placing one's trust in God, the Sages quoted Psalm 112. This chapter describes the righteous individual with an unwavering faith in God, whose life is free of fears and worries:
"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. This lack of fear is an expression of his genuine trust in God, and it is also a reward for his righteousness. The famous scholar Hillel, we are told, lived according to this verse. He once returned from a journey when he heard sounds of trouble and commotion in the city. Hillel remarked, "I am confident that it is not coming from my house" [Brachot 60a].
What is the source of this bitachon and fearlessness?
This inner confidence is based on the knowledge that even that which appears to be evil should not unduly trouble 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, since everything is from God and nothing can be truly evil.
The most debilitating aspects of hardships and suffering are not physical, but psychological in nature. For a person who can see the world as it is, and still his heart remains full of trust in God, even his afflictions are not true afflictions. Such a person is happy with his portion in life, and is able to face life's challenges with grace.
But for the individual who is accustomed to being discontent with the world, troubles await him at every corner. One cannot be at peace and feel contentment and happiness without learning to flow with life and accept the conditions of reality.
Fear and Sin
What is the connection between fear and sin?
Fear is the result of a state when the soul does not match or fit with the general reality. We do not fear that which is normal and expected. One who is unburdened with sins and maintains a healthy connection to the social order will not suffer from excessive worries and fears.
One whose life is darkened with immoral ways and corrupt values, on the other hand, has abandoned the proper path and his place in society. Due his alienated lifestyle, such a person will constantly feel anxiety and apprehension.
In addition, one living an ethical life is following the moral dictates of his intellect, while one who leaves the path of reason is subject to the whims of his imagination and its terrifying fears.
Never Enough Torah
Why did Rabbi Ishmael teach that there is one area where fear is appropriate - regarding Torah? 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 is elevated above the ordinary human level - here there is room for concern. Even one who lives with integrity, and follows his intellect without the frightening shadows of the imagination, may reasonably be concerned lest he lose this extraordinary gift.
Unlike other fears, however, this concern need not disturb our mental equilibrium, since there is an obvious method to neutralize it - through dedicated efforts at 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 spiritual stagnation and stimulate continued growth, this fear will not darken our spirits and discourage us. Rather, it will help us overcome any traits of laziness, ensuring that we are not satisfied with spiritual acquisitions already acquired. With this awareness, our spirits will be full of joy and resolve, and we will continue to grow and succeed in our spiritual endeavors.
[adapted from Ein Ayah vol. II pp. 324-325]