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  • Writer's pictureReuven Sherwin

Happy is the man that feareth always... | Proverbs, 28:14

Updated: Jul 19, 2022

(First published in Hebrew. Link here.)

להבות חורבן

In the three weeks between 17 Tammuz and Tisha B'Av, known in Hebrew as "Y'mei Ben HaMetzarim" - the days between the straits, I get to engage, read and learn from the legends of destruction of the (first and second) Hebrew Temple.

The Gemara in Tractate Gittin, on the backside of page 55: says "Rabbi Yoḥanan said: What is the meaning of that which is written: Happy is the man who fears always, but he who hardens his heart shall fall into mischief".

The Gemara continues with three stories that form the basis for understanding the problems in the people of Israel that led to destruction of the Temple.

But while the stories are sad and painful to read - yet relatively obvious to understand, delivering clear messages of fundamental problems in the behavior of those generations (leading to the destruction of the first temple - and some 650 years later, the destruction of the second temple) - the opening sentence, quoted above, has always been difficult for me to understand.

The quote of Rabbi Yohanan (who quotes the verse from a proverb) - "Blessed is the man who is always afraid and hardens his heart will fall evil" is unclear to me.

Why is fear good?

And how does is fear "contrasted" it with the hardening of heart (which is portrayed as the opposite of fear, as a bad thing)?

And how is this proverb leading up to the stories following it, and to the behavior leading to the destruction of the temple?

And this year, on Tisha B'Av (2020), I believe I finally understood.

The fear the King Solomon is praising in Proverbs (and subsequently, Rabbi Yohanan in Gittin) is not the usual fear of "something external frightens me".

The "good" fear is an inner fear - it is a fear of "can it be that I'm mistaken?"

In the context of an argument, or even just a discussion, can it be that my convictions are wrong?

Maybe I'm not listening and attentive enough?

Perhaps the other's claims are more worthy of consideration, of greater weight?

Maybe I'm too "locked in" to a certain way of thinking?

Happy is the man who fears always - Blessed is a person who is always willing to consider the possibility that (s)he is mistaken, open to listening attentively to what is being said, and to examine again (and again) the claims of the other person.

he who hardens his heart shall fall into mischief - he who always "just moves on" to their next argument, and ignores the inputs and thoughts of the other - will bang their head against the wall - and even if they're right sometimes - they will always be alone, and never learn and grow.

This does not mean that one should not take a stand or position, and act on it - but it is worthwhile and important and it is always worthwhile to seriously examine the counter-arguments.

And when you do not do it enough, are not open to learning, the person "hardens his heart," and "falls into evil." The story will probably not have a happy end.

Now, the three stories following Rabbi Yohanan's statement are clearer - read on, and see how almost every character "misses", doesn't listen or consider any other option or opinion, or the the possibility that someone else may "hold the truth", and insists on the righteousness of their path.

So "locked in" their way of thinking, unwilling to consider any other way of thinking - and leading to the next level failure, culminating in the destruction of the Temple(s).


** Inspired by my parents, who taught me so much - and most of all - not to take anything for granted - and never to assume.

Specifically, my father's favorite ending statement to anything he says, "what do I know?"

Thank you both.

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