Rabbi Mayer Twersky
The Torah describes Yaakov Avinu's reaction to his impending encounter with Eisav. "vayira Yaakov me'od - Yaakov became very frightened" (Breishis 32:8). Chazal (Berachos 4a) comment that Yaakov's reaction is perplexing. Seemingly, he has no cause for concern because Hakadosh Baruch Hu had already promised him, "v'hinei anochi imcha ushmarticha bechol asher tailech - Behold, I am with you and will guard you wherever you go" (ibid 28). Chazal explain that Yaakov was concerned shema yigrom hacheit, lest a sin cause him to become undeserving of fulfillment of Hashem's promise of protection. Dovid Hamelech, according to Chazal exhibited the same attitude of caution and self-doubt. David said, before the Holy One, Blessed Is He: Master of the Universe, I have trust in You that You will give just reward to the righteous in the future world; however, I do not know whether or not I have a portion among them, lest a sin cause (shema yigrom hacheit) … (ibid, Schottenstein Talmud Translation).
With the benefit of hindsight, we, of course, know that Yaakov Avinu continued to merit divine protection. Likewise, Dovid Hamelech retained his place amongst the righteous. Are we to conclude that their fears were unfounded, their self-doubt misplaced? Is that what Chazal are implying?
Much to the contrary, the lesson which Chazal are imparting is that Yaakov Avinu did not sin and Dovid Hamelech remained righteous precisely because they were wary of the prospect of sin and regression. The healthy, realistic self-doubt exhibited by Yaakov Avinu and Dovid Hamelech prevented complacency and smugness from infecting their souls. Thus they were constantly vigilant to avoid sin.
A life of avodas Hashem can not accommodate complacency or smugness. Life, explains Ramchal in Mesilas Yesharim, is a continuous, unbroken chain of nisyonos, trials. Thus it is impossible to spiritually coast. Man, per force, explain Rav Chaim of Volozhin and the Baal Shem Tov is a mehalech, one who moves. Either he advances spiritually by prevailing in each day's trials, or, God forbid, regresses by failing. The righteous, forever wary shema yigrom hacheit, position themselves to, with siyata dishmaya (heavenly assistance) prevail and advance. The complacent, on the other hand, doom themselves to failure and regression, God forbid.
The dynamic nature of human existence which does not allow for coasting is, albeit trying, a chessed Hashem (kindness of Hashem). Hashem wants us to achieve our full potential. He does not want us to be content with anything less. Hashem resembles a teacher with students who can achieve a B+ with minimal effort. The promise or prospect of an A+ if only they exert themselves does not motivate them. They are content with a grade of B+. What does the teacher do to galvanize them? He designs the course in such a way that their B+ is never guaranteed. They simply can not maintain their B+. They will either improve or decline. When confronted with these stark alternatives, the students ought to be galvanized.
So too, Hashem designed human existence as an uninterupted exercise in coping with nisyonos. In so doing, He precluded the option of coasting, in order to galvanize us to achieve our full potential.
This attitude of shema yigrom hacheit fosters a spiritual work ethic. Man's service to Hashem is never complete. Even his past accomplishments can be ruined by future cheit. This beautiful, humbling, galvanizing attitude is alien to the modern Western world which seeks physical and materialistic pleasure as the ultimate good and goal of life. A life of such pleasure is the antithesis of a life of shema yigrom hacheit.
In keeping with the mandate of shema yigrom hacheit we would do well to introspect to determine to what degree our attitude mirrors that of Yaakov Avinu or, lehavdil, that of modern culture. Lets us select a few representative examples. Chazal (Avos 4:21) warn us that taava, indulging our desire for physical and materialistic pleasure, is spiritually ruinous. And yet, all too often we live indulgently and affluently. At times, we deny to ourselves that our lifestyles are indulgent. ("The million dollar price tag on my house is misleading. It simply allows my family to live with dignity and moderate comfort. What's wrong with that?" "An European vacation is necessary to re-charge my batteries.") And other times we delude ourselves into thinking that we will not be adversely affected by materialism. Such wishful, foolish thinking is the antithesis of the caution and self-doubt of Yaakov Avinu.
Another example: Chazal limited our interaction with the opposite gender, recognizing our susceptibility to active sin as well as impure thoughts. "Do not unnecessarily prolong conversation with women…(because) when a person does so he causes evil for himself, neglects the study of Torah and inherits Geihinom." Too often we carelessly disregard Chazal's red flag warning, deluding ourselves into thinking that we are unaffected by the pervasive, at times flirtatious intermingling of the genders. If only we were unaffected, but of course that is simply impossible.
One final example. Chazal caution that we must equip our sons to earn a livelihood. Otherwise, it is as if we encourage cheating and thievery (Kiddushin 29a). To not equip ourselves or our sons is to invite cheit. When we try to be smarter than Chazal, when we eschew the caution of shema yigrom hacheit, cheit inevitably ensues, as experience attests.
May Hashem help us to serve Him in truth, fear and love.