May 30, 2024
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May 30, 2024
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If you stand on the railroad tracks and see a train coming your way you would probably become anxious and fearful. You would get off the tracks immediately to save your life. This is an example of adaptive or helpful anxiety. If, on the other hand, you are standing quietly on line at the supermarket and you suddenly experience that same level of anxiety and fear, as if a train were about to barrel down the tracks your way, that is an example of maladaptive or destructive anxiety. A little bit of anxiety is helpful in that it helps us plan ahead and anticipate our future needs. Too much anxiety is harmful to us in that it paralyzes us and makes us freeze with inaction. Unfortunately, the NIMH tells us that about 18% of adults suffer from the second type of maladaptive anxiety to some degree and benefit from treatment.

The Torah (Devarim 20:5-8) gives examples of good anxiety and bad anxiety. In the first three examples, a potential soldier anticipates that good things are coming his way. Either he just built a new house and looks forward to living in it. Or he just planted his vineyard and has not redeemed his crop yet. Or he just came home from his wedding and hasn’t begun to live the good life that his marriage offers. In all of these cases, he is exempt from military conscription and is encouraged to stay back.

Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi points out that the men in all of these situations were allowed their fears and anxieties because of their optimistic viewpoints. They were not resisting being soldiers out of cowardice. Instead, they looked forward to their futures with excitement. The first man envisioned his life in the new home he built. The second man who harvested his vineyard looked forward to reaping his livelihood for a year. The third man could not wait to start a new life with his new wife. As long as you are anxious about the future because you know how beautiful it could be, this sort of anxiety is permitted, even encouraged. This sort of anticipation spurs people to invest more into their houses, work harder at their careers and be a better husband because they see the promising potential ahead.

Purposeless fear, on the other hand, is something to be avoided. People who only anticipate the future as being black, people with free-floating anxiety and unproductive fright typically only bring destructiveness into their own lives and unduly influence the lives of those around them. The Torah tells us, “Who is the man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his home, and let him not melt the heart of his fellows, like his heart” (Devarim 20:8). In other words, we are warned about not worrying uselessly, being unduly pessimistic and always predicting the worst. Unfounded fear has no place in Judaism and can, in fact, adversely affect those around us, like a bad virus.

The Talmud in Brachot (60a) records a discussion between the sages on whether being fearful and anxious, in general, is acceptable or something to be discouraged. A true man of faith, after all, believes that the world is unfolding by divine providence, and everything will turn out the way it was meant to be.

Still, we are left with the question of why we need to struggle, constantly pass tests and face unexpected challenges in our lives. One analogy that might help explain this is as follows: Growing up, we often had to take examinations in school. On the day of the test the teacher would hand out the questions and remain silently up front, proctoring the examination. At that time, he would offer no explanations or instructions. On the previous several days, however, he was fully available to teach us, to explain the materials and to prepare us for the examination. On the day of the test, however, he remained silent. Ultimately, we passed these tests and went on to be promoted. We went from first to second grade. We went from elementary school to high school to college or higher yeshiva. Passing these tests led to our promotion and growth.

Similarly, God prepares us for the challenges we face in life. At the time of the test He may appear to be silent or unavailable. However, He is actually up front, watching us like the teacher, making sure that we pass the test and get promoted.

May Hashem bless us so that we mostly experience the positive sorts of anxiety that come when facing the challenges of starting new chapters in our lives. We need to optimistically look forward to actualizing our potential after passing the trials and tribulations of life. May we ultimately pass all of our tests and be promoted with health, success and happiness.


Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg is a forensic, clinical psychologist in private practice. He is president of the Chai Riders Motorcycle Club of NY/NJ. He leads the Summit Avenue Shabbos Gemara shiur and minyan in Fair Lawn, NJ, and is a member of the International Rabbinical Society. He can be reached at [email protected].

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