Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel fears sin

- Ethics of the Fathers, 2:9

Which is the best trait for a person to acquire? ... Rabbi Shimon said, to see what is born

Ethics of the Fathers, 2:10


The second chapter of the Ethics Of The Fathers includes a description by Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai of his five leading disciples. In a few words, Rabbi Yochanan summarizes their predominant qualities. He then conducts a brief survey of each one's outlook on life by asking them a question: “What is the proper path for man to cleave to?”

Rabbi Shimon, who is described by his teacher as one who “fears sin,” answers that the most important component of a person's approach to life is that he “see what is be born” out of his actions. This is in keeping with Rabbi Shimon's particular merit: the sinner lives for the moment, but the righteous individual foresees the consequences of his deeds. The instant gratifications of sin cannot entice he who fears its deeper repercussions.

King Solomon also touches on this sentiment when he says, “The wise man has his eyes in his (or its) head; but the fool walks in darkness.” Obviously, the physical location of the wise man's eyes is the same as those of the fool's. Explains Rashi: the Hebrew word b'rosho should be not translated not “in his head” but “in its head”---the wise man is one who, in everything he does, “looks into the beginning (`head') of the deed to see its end.”

Now or Later

The verse still needs clarification. If the wise man is simply one who recognizes that, ultimately, all good is rewarded and all evil is punished, why does King Solomon say that “The wise man has his eyes in its head”? Would it not have been more correct to say that “the wise man has his eyes in its end”?

But the ultimate difference between the “wise man” and the “fool,” between the “fearer of sin” who “sees what is born” of his actions and one who “walks in darkness,” is not the question of short-term versus long-term considerations.

Ultimately, fear of punishment is not enough to deter wrongdoing. One who desires the act and only fears its promised retribution will often reassure himself that the right lawyer or a proper repentance will get him off the hook. Indeed, one who views the negative consequences of evil in terms of judiciary or Heavenly retribution is hardly one who “fears sin”; he fears only the consequences of sin, not the wrongdoing itself.

On the other hand, one who fears sin itself understands the immediate effects of a negative act. He understands that such an act runs contrary to the purpose of his life and to the very essence of his being. He understands that even if he truly rectifies his wrongdoing, even if he succeeds in repairing the damage it has wrought upon his moral self, even if the “experience” ultimately makes him a better person, nevertheless, at the moment of his wrongdoing he has disconnected himself from the quintessential good that forms the core of his soul.

It is the true significance of his action, in the here and now, that he sees and fears.