`186 The Ramchal on Fear and Foolishness
Chananya Weissman
February 7, 2022

One of the fundamental issues we face is finding the proper balance between responsible precautions and inappropriate fears, between trust in Hashem and the requirement for human effort.

Fear is psychologically and physically harmful. Those who live with chronic fear believe they are protecting themselves, but they are actually doing just the opposite. It is no coincidence that people who are glued to screens for “fear of missing out” are the ones who miss out the most. It is no coincidence that those who fear social disapproval the most are the ones who tend to find themselves isolated. And it is no coincidence that those who have become paranoid hypochondriacs, and gone overboard with foolish precautions, are the ones most likely to get sick.

The Torah teaches us all about this, but those who fail to learn from our teachings will have to learn the hard way. (I have written extensively about these issues. See Herd Insanity, On Fear and Faith, A Practical Guide to Human Effort and Trust in God, and Fear Kills.)

The Ramchal sums it up beautifully in Mesilas Yesharim Chapter 9, where he is discussing things that detract from the positive trait of zerizus (alacrity to do a mitzvah). I will translate the lengthy passage, emphasize the most pertinent statements, and explain how they apply to our situation – though that should be self-evident.

Another thing that detracts from one's alacrity is an abundance of terror and great fear from the times and what might happen. For sometimes he will be afraid of the cold or the heat, and sometimes from getting hurt, and sometimes from illnesses, and sometimes from the wind, and all similar things. This is what Shlomo, peace be upon him, said (Mishlei 26:13): "The lazy person says a lion is in the path, a lion is roaming the streets."

While the irrational fears among the masses right now are not necessarily rooted in laziness, there is no doubt that they are inappropriate according to the Torah, as we shall see. At the very outset the Ramchal equates abundant fear of injury and illness with one who worries that a lion will devour him if he goes outside – an increased chance of danger, to be sure, but in reality nothing more than an excuse to vegetate.

Chazal [our sages, of blessed memory] already denigrated this trait and attributed it to sinners, and the Scriptures support them, as it is written (Yeshaya 33:14) "The sinners in Zion are frightened, the flatterers are gripped with trembling", to the extent that one of the great sages said to his student when he saw him in a state of fear (Brachos 60A) "You are a sinner!" But about this it says (Tehillim 37:3) "Trust in Hashem and do good, dwell in the land and sustain yourself with faith."

Walking around in a state of fear is evidence that one is a sinner, distant from Hashem. The only fear that serves a productive purpose, outside of ordinary precautions from things like cold and heat, is fear of sin. Other fears serve only to prevent a person from doing that which he should, or to engage in foolish, harmful behaviors to alleviate his fear.

The bottom line is that a person must make himself secondary in worldly matters and fixed in divine service. He should be pleased and satisfied in all his worldly affairs with whatever is delivered to him, and take from what comes to his hand. He should be far from rest and close to work and toil, and his heart should be proper, trusting in Hashem. He should not fear from the events of the time and its troubles.

There are times of prosperity and times of hardship; there are times of political turmoil, plagues, and even war. One should certainly be cognizant of what is going on around him, but his main focus should always be on his divine service. That is, after all, why he is in this world. One who spends his entire life fretting over every headline and event outside his control has lost sight of his reason for living in the first place.

Lest you say that we find that our sages obligated a person at all times to protect himself extremely well, and not to place himself in danger, even if he is righteous and full of good deeds, and they said (Kesubos 30A) “Everything is in the hands of heaven, except for colds and fevers” and it is written in Scriptures (Devarim 4:15) “Guard your souls very much”. We see that one should not exclusively rely on trust in Hashem in all situations. And they said there, even when it comes to doing a mitzvah.

“Guard your souls very much” has been used and abused to justify becoming what we used to refer to as paranoid hypochondriacs. There were a million ways a person could get sick and die before we heard of Wuhan, and all of them put together didn't lead people to behave with the extreme paranoia that we see for this illness all by itself. They didn't feel a need to huddle at home, distance themselves from friends and loved ones, block their respiratory airways, become pin cushions for the pharmaceutical industry, support tyranny against dissenters, and make a mitzvah out of forfeiting all the other mitzvos to incrementally decrease one's chance getting sick (modified later to merely decrease one's chance of getting a "serious case").

Indeed, we are supposed to dress warmly in the winter and keep cool in the summer. We are supposed to look where we are going so we don't stumble. This is the proper context for the Torah's instruction to protect our lives. There's no mitzvah to act like a crazy fool, nor will someone avoid getting sick by being a crazy fool.

Know that there is fear, and there is fear. There is fear that is appropriate, and there is fear that is madness. There is trust in Hashem and there is folly. For the Lord, Blessed is He, made a person possessing proper intelligence and straight reasoning to conduct himself on the good path and protect himself from things that cause harm, which were created to punish the wicked. One who wants to not conduct himself in the ways of wisdom, and to abandon himself to dangers – this is not trust in Hashem, but folly, and he is a sinner in that he is opposing the will of the Creator, bless His name, Who wants man to protect himself.

It turns out that aside from the danger that is inherent in the matter that he is likely to come upon because of his lack of precaution, in addition he is actively guilty for his own soul with the sin that he did. It turns out that the sin itself brings him to be punished.

Indeed, this precaution and fear, which is based on wise, intelligent conduct is that which is appropriate, about which it says (Mishlei 22:3) “The clever one saw evil and hid, while the gullible passes through and is punished.”

In other words, if someone has an infectious disease – really has it, not “tested positive” with some bogus test – then one should consider keeping his distance. If there is indeed a lion roaming the street, one should take an alternate route. If he throws caution to the wind, he will be responsible for any harm that befalls him.

But the foolish fear is that where a person wants to add precautions upon precautions, and fear upon fear, and he makes a safeguard to his safeguard in a manner that leads to nullifying the Torah and the divine service.

Mask upon mask, injection after injection, precaution upon precaution, with every remote fear treated like a clear and present danger, until one is no longer serving Hashem, but serving his fears and those who perpetuate them.

The rule to distinguish between these two types of fear is the differentiation that Chazal made when they said (Pesachim 8B) “When harm is likely it is different.” For in a place where harm is clear and present one should take precaution; however, in a place where the harm is not known [only speculative] one should not fear. About such things it says (Chulin 56B) “A defect that we do not see we do not take for granted”, and a sage can only judge based upon what he sees with his eyes. This is precisely what the verse was talking about that we brought above, “The clever one saw evil and hid”; it is only talking about one who hides from evil that he sees, not from that which could theoretically be, that could possibly come. This is literally the subject of the verse that I mentioned above, “The lazy person said there is a lion in the path” etc.

So what if that person is not wearing a mask? The possibility of him spreading an illness – the possibility that he is even carrying an illness – is remote and entirely speculative. According to the Torah, one is not allowed to be afraid of such things. Worrying about such things, and taking far-fetched precautions against them, is foolish, harmful, and sinful.

And Chazal explained this matter beautifully to show to what extent irrational fears separate a person from good deeds. They said (Devarim Rabba 8:6) “Shlomo said seven things regarding a lazy person. How is this? They said to the lazy person 'Your Rabbi is in the city. Go and learn Torah from him.' He responds to them 'I am afraid from the lion that is in the path.' [They said] 'Your Rabbi is inside the province.' He says to them 'I am afraid that there shouldn't be a lion between the streets.' They say to him 'Behold, he is inside your house.' He says 'If I go by him I will find the door locked.' Check there [for more].

This teaches you that fear doesn't cause one to become lazy, but laziness causes one to become afraid. Daily experience attests to all this, from what is widespread and common among the majority of the masses of people, that this is their foolish way. One who thinks intelligently about the matter will find the real truth, and knowledge will come easily to one with understanding.

Similarly, fear is not driving the foolish behavior, but foolishness is causing the fear.

There is no counter-argument to the Ramchal's words and how they relate to our times. The Torah's position on this matter is clear, consistent, and unequivocal. Those who scoff and dismiss these words are sinning against themselves and others, and will bring harm upon themselves, God forbid.

Those who think intelligently about the matter – not merely parrot propaganda – will surely find the truth.