Overcoming Evil

Primordial SnakeThe vilna gaon, rabbi Eliyahu Kramer of Vilna, 1720-1797, one of the most influential Rabbinic figures since the Middle Ages, wrote on this topic in Even Shelaima. In commenting about how it was possible for Adam and Eve to sin if the evil inclination hadn’t fully be incorporated within humankind, he insists that indeed they did have an evil inclination. However, since they were fashioned from the “Hand of God,” their God-consciousness was so strong that it was axiomatic they would do the correct thing. As long as their inner-voice and spiritual essence radiated, it subdued any outside influences that may challenge this level of connection.

The primordial snake turned out to be just the agent to stimulate the notion of rebellion, ignite a spark of doubt in the divine command to refrain from eating of the Tree of Knowledge, and from the moment they imbibed in that forbidden fruit, their “eyes were opened.” From now on the possibility for allowing external stimuli to penetrate their inner-core of the soul’s sanctity and disturb their cleaving to God was activated. Humankind is constantly being tested with how much light their souls (inner essence) can muster to dispel the darkness associated with the myriad temptations of the world, which every moment attempts to suppress the sublime luster of that soul.

-Rav Aaron Perry
found at VirtualJerusalem.com

Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.Anne Frank

Although I didn’t intend it this way, this “morning meditation” is Part 1 in a 3-Part series. See the bottom of this article for information on Part 2.

Given Anne Frank’s brief and tragic life, I’ve always wondered how she could say that. Living in the shadow of Nazi oppression and the horror of the Holocaust, I would imagine she’d see people as anything except “good at heart”.

Christianity teaches that created man was initially good and obedient to God but, thanks to the temptation of the serpent and Eve and Adam subsequently giving in to temptation, the fundamental nature of all human beings throughout time became evil. In other words, all people are inherently evil beings and only through the saving grace of Jesus Christ can we overcome our evil nature (“more than conquerors” as in Romans 8:37) and do good. According to the church, Anne Frank is wrong.

Actually, looking at the bloody and cruel history of humanity, it is easy to agree with Christianity’s viewpoint of man’s grim nature, and to conclude that Ms. Frank was a good but rather naive person. Yet Judaism has a very different take on the “primordial sin” of Adam and Eve.

Depending on who you talk to, Judaism believes that man was essentially operating under a “good inclination” (that’s just like it sounds, man was inclined to do good which in this case means obeying God) internally. Evil existed in the world in the form of the serpent (and at no time in this early Genesis narrative is the serpent equated with Satan) but as an external influence. According to this view, man had an internally good nature but could be impacted by external evil forces.

Rabbi Perry gives us a slightly different view of this, saying that man possessed an internal good and evil inclination. Referencing the Vilna Gaon, he states that, “…indeed they did have an evil inclination. However, since they were fashioned from the “Hand of God,” their God-consciousness was so strong that it was axiomatic they would do the correct thing. As long as their inner-voice and spiritual essence radiated, it subdued any outside influences that may challenge this level of connection.”

In other words, it was possible, but highly unlikely for man to give in to his evil inclination, because his “God-consciousness” overwhelmed the evil within him and generally dampened external evil influences. Once man sinned against God, the barriers inhibiting man from sinning were breached and now, humanity struggles between the two internalized inclinations for good and evil.

BurningDoes that mean, from a Jewish point of view, that Anne Frank is right? Are we really “good at heart” but with our goodness inhibited by our inclination for evil? If so, why is human history so dismal and corrupt? Why don’t we see a more “balanced” expression of human motivations, illustrating whole people groups who were essentially good and righteous vs. others who were dark and monstrous?

I’ve already addressed the issue of the “primordial sin” once before in my blog post Gateway to Eden and suggested that the way we can return to intimacy with God, at least to some degree and for a brief time, was to embrace Shabbat keeping. However, I didn’t try to directly confront the nature of humanity, although I did find this helpful quote:

After man ate from the Tree of Knowledge, however, he acquired the intimate knowledge of and desire for evil. The evil inclination was no longer an external force, represented by the Serpent. It was within. Our physical flesh was now a confused mixture of good and evil. Death was introduced into the world: human flesh, separated from the spirit, was a creature of the finite, physical realm — one which must ultimately decay and die. Man would now face a much greater challenge than before. He would no longer battle a Serpent from without. He would have to battle his own sluggish yet desirous flesh within.

Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
The Primordial Sin, Part II
Pirkei Avos Chapter 6, Mishna 5(b)

There is a drive among people, particularly people of faith, to rise above the mud and slime of thousands of years of war, crime, and misery, and to reach out for the heavens and the Throne of God. The Divine spark within us seeks out its Source and cannot be buried, no matter how depraved a people we become. God once chose to destroy all but a tiny handful of human beings and flooded the Earth because we had become so totally immersed in evil, but every time we see a rainbow, we can recall the promise that God will not repeat this action.

God gave the Children of Israel the Torah to establish a nation of mercy and justice and with the intent of sending the Torah from Zion and into the nations. God sent his “only begotten Son” so that everyone could be saved and none should perish for lacking the ability to have a relationship with the Creator.

We’ve previously encountered the question of how man could do evil if he was essentially good. Now we must ask ourselves, if man is essentially evil, why would he even desire to do good? Why would man seek God? For it seems “…man is born for trouble, As sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7 NASB).

Bending the verse just a little bit, I rather prefer, “For man is born to trouble but our sparks fly upward.” None of the translations available present the verse in such a way, but I think my version paints a truer picture of humanity…we battle between the inclinations of good and evil within us, but always present is the image of God in which we were created, and the slender, illuminated thread that inexorably attaches us to Him and leads us upward and back toward home.

All we have to do is resist the evil and seek the good within ourselves.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. –Romans 12:17-21 (Deut. 32:35 Prov. 25:21-22)

It is not so much that we need to be taken out of exile. It is that the exile must be taken out of us.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Inner Exile”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

We are in the last nine days of the three weeks of mourning between 17 Tammuz and 9 Av, which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples. It is believed that the Second Temple was destroyed and the Jewish people were sent into a 2,000 year exile due to their display of “wanton hatred” among each other. Right now, Jews all over the world are observing a period of intense mourning and prayer as they seek to put aside the desires of the evil inclination and turn to the God of their Fathers.

May we all pray for the courage and strength to do the same.

Part 2 of this series will be published in tomorrow’s morning meditation: The Primordial Serpent.

5 thoughts on “Overcoming Evil”

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