The Great Balancing Act: Complacency Versus Proper Fear

Thousands of words have been written and spoken. We have learned by phone and by Zoom. Chavrusos have developed strategies for sharing words of Torah that have been unneeded since the Middle Ages. Yet, one conundrum has not been resolved. All around us, some people have succumbed to illness and even death r”l, although others have boruch Hashem recovered safely and have returned to their families and at least some semblance of normalcy. The question, however, is how much we should worry and how much is bitachon and emunah. Although for the Torah Jew this is a daily question, it becomes a more knotty issue in the current coronavirus world.

At the beginning of World War II, the Brisker Rov found himself in the besieged city of Warsaw. During the incredibly dangerous Blitzkrieg, the German bombers made daily raids on the city, often causing entire buildings to collapse, burying all the inhabitants alive. The residents of the city could not sleep, knowing that at any moment, they, too, could experience such a fate. It was at that time that the Brisker Rov’s absolute bitachon in Hashem shone through. Even though it was well known that the Brisker Rov used to suffer from insomnia, he slept soundly through the nights of bombings in Warsaw. When asked about this seemingly strange dichotomy, the Rov characteristically explained with a posuk. “We can learn this from Dovid Hamelech,” he calmly answered. “When he was running away from his son Avshalom and was in constant danger, Dovid stated, ‘I lay down and slept, yet I awoke, for Hashem supports me” (Tehillim 3:6; see The Brisker Rov, volume 3, chapter 32). As the Brisker Rov explained elsewhere, the only thing a Jew needs to fear is his sins. Once he has repented, there is nothing to fear, for Hashem is in charge.

We see echoes of this approach in a posuk we all recite daily. Dovid Hamelech says, “I had said in my serenity, ‘I would never falter’” (Tehillim 30:7). Rabbeinu Avrohom, the brother of the Vilna Gaon, is horrified that Dovid Hamelech would seem to be uttering the kind of emotion usually attributed to the wicked. Is he saying, G-d forbid, “I have no worries and I will be never be punished for my sins”? The Be’er Avrohom therefore explains that Dovid Hamelech is reminding himself and warning us all never to become so complacent that he will suffer a spiritual downfall. A truly pious person never falls into the trap of “Yeshurun grew fat and kicked,” meaning that he considered himself immune to spiritual traps and dangers. The Gaon’s brother goes on to stress that while spiritual tranquility – like that of the Brisker Rov – is laudable, Dovid Hamelech is reminding us that we must always remain vigilant to the possibility of becoming entrapped by the yeitzer hara and Soton.

Who, then, does fall into such traps? The Sheim M’Shmuel (Purim 5680, page 209) quotes the Medrash that until the moment when Haman was forced to lead Mordechai through the streets, he had indeed convinced himself to be invincible. The truly good person isn’t afraid of evil befalling him. He should be afraid of having fallen into a Haman-like complacency, which in turn engenders personal danger and, G-d forbid, destruction.

Rav Chaim Friedlander (Sifsei Chaim,Middos,” 1:547) reminds us that “a person doesn’t so much as nick his finger unless there is a heavenly decree that he do so” (Chulin 7b). Since nothing is haphazard, “there is virtually no situation when a person should lose all hope for salvation…He must therefore always believe that there is hope and the ability to change his fate.”

Therefore, while, we should never become complacent, we should always maintain hope and not despair of altering what appears to be the inevitable. A Jew should never give up, while constantly working to repair what is in his hands, which is the free will with which we have been endowed.

Rav Friedlander offers a dramatic example of the power of bitachon from the story of Yonasan and his arms-bearer (Shmuel I 14:6). The two of them were alone against the entire Philistine army. Numbers were irrelevant and statistical odds had no place in their belief. Once Hashem is on your side, all bets are off and all worries have no place. He demonstrates that this philosophy goes back to Yaakov Avinu (Bereishis 32:7), where Yaakov was afraid only of his sin, not of the situation. Yes, he was smart enough to be afraid, not of Eisav but of his own imperfection. His sons, the shivtei Kah, also, learned from their great father. When the money was found in their satchels, they expressed fear – not of the unknown enemy who seemed to be tormenting them, but “What has Hashem done to us?” (42:28). The Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 91:9) explains that their innermost fear was that they had failed in their divine mission and had miscalculated their own sin.

To give Rav Friedlander the last word on this, “When a danger approaches a person, he should direct his fear toward Hashem, the Great Cause, and not toward the immediate minor cause of his worry.”

Rav Yechezkel Levenstein used to quote Dovid Hamelech’s words in Tehillim 30 as well, but he added a poignant note. When things are going well for a person, he doesn’t notice the possibility of anything going wrong until the last bit of earth is thrown into his grave. He forgets the warning of Shlomo Hamelech (Koheles 11:10) that we will be brought to justice for every deed, which is the only thing about which we should ever worry.

Can it be that we have all been recently taught the lesson the Ishbitzer wrote of long ago? The Mei Hashiloach relates that it was told to Rav Tzadok Hakohein of Lublin in the name of the rebbe Rav Bunim of Peshischa that in the generation just before Moshiach, people will pursue monetary luxuries and extras to such an extent that people will require many jobs to fulfill all their financial “requirements.” Haven’t we all learned so many lessons about our true needs versus man-made extras?

Rav Moshe Yitzchok Darshan, the famed maggid of Kelm, once arrived in the resort city of Riga and was shocked to discover that at Shacharis, many of the men did not have their talleisim for davening, having been too lazy to bring it to “vacation.” The maggid immediately sprang into action, presenting a similar tale. “I once spent Shabbos here in Riga and went searching for a certain man. I was told that he was away in Dublin, but I was shocked to hear a cry from his home. Going to investigate, I followed the disembodied voice to an empty room. There I discovered that it was a tallis that was crying. ‘Tallis, tallis,’ I inquired, ‘why are you crying?’ The tallis answered, ‘How can I not cry? The baal habayis took all his money along to Dublin and left me all alone here.’ I, however, consoled the tallis by telling it, ‘Do not fear. The time will come when the man will go on an even longer journey, when he will leave behind all his money and wealth. His only companion will be you, his loyal tallis” (Mechanech Ledoros 1:62).

So let us review. There is no reason to despair, despite what seems to have been a rough two months. However, Yaakov Avinu, despite having spent 63 years learning Torah, was petrified of the influences of Lovon upon his family and went to learn for another 14 years. Surely he wasn’t afraid of Lovon so much as of his own lack of spiritual perfection (Chochmas Hamzatpun, Bereishis 2:552). We still have some time alone to improve our davening, learning and middos so that we won’t have any worries. If we take our days of introspection seriously, we can sleep as well as the Brisker Rov. This should not be a time of fear, but of growth. If we are careful not to become complacent, then we will look back upon a time of spiritual fulfillment and aliyah. Hopefully, every day in shul will be greater than before, filled with beautiful tefillos, lainings, haftoros, and the beauty and music of malachim smiling down upon every one of us, bimeheirah b’yomeinu.