Tag Archives: evil inclination

What I Learned In Church Today: The Devil Made Me Do It

I know the title is pretty inflammatory and I’m deliberately exaggerating this part of what was taught in Sunday school today because it’s one of those things about the Church that really bugs me.

Here’s what started it all off:

Give some ways Satan supplies us with reasons and circumstances to justify ignoring God’s counsel?

-from Sunday School class notes
for August 10th

The context of this teaching is Pastor Randy’s sermon on Acts 27:13-44 and particularly the circumstances leading up to the fateful shipwreck of Paul and his traveling companions on the island of Malta. Dean, the Sunday school teacher, is focusing on Acts 27:13-15 and the moment when everyone on board ship realized that they should have listened to Paul’s advice and not tried to push on from Fair Haven to Phoenix (Crete).

Coincidentally (or not), on Saturday I was reading Ismar Schorsch’s commentary on Torah Portion Vaethanan from his book Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries called “The Locus of Evil in Judaism.”

Schorsch wrote his small article in July 1996 and recorded two tragic events that had recently happened. The first one is:

On the first anniversary of the bomb blast that erased 168 lives in the Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, the New York Times ran a front-page photograph of Jannie Coverdale, who had lost two grandsons. She posed between twin beds, each covered with stuffed animals, holding a portrait picture of each boy toward the camera. Beneath the photograph, the Times quoted her as saying: “A year ago this week, Satan drove up Fifth Street in a Ryder truck. He blew my babies up. He may have looked like a normal man, but he was Satan.”

-Schorsch, pg 592

And the second one is:

When Susan Smith in South Carolina sent her two small boys to their watery death strapped into the child safety seats inside her Mazda, her minister, Reverend Mark Long, speculated that she was witness to two presentations that night: “God made her a presentation and Satan made her a beautiful presentation.” After weighing them in her distraught mind, she opted for Satan’s.

-ibid

I don’t know about you, but when I read this, the “red alert” alarm started going off in the back of my head, but maybe not for the reason you think.

In moments of numbness, I envy the clarity and conviction of these statements. The explicit dualism seems able to account for the ubiquity of evil, that tragic aspect of human experience that defies comprehension — as in the words of the young Augustine before his conversion, “I sought whence evil comes and there was no solution.”

-ibid

I was caught somewhat off guard in Schorsch’s apparent agreement with such Christian sentiments, however understandable they may be, but then he added:

Yet this view is also thoroughly un-Jewish.

Christianity and Judaism have fundamentally different perspectives on the nature of the origin of good and evil, and Judaism does not embrace what Christians call “Original Sin” or “the Fall” in any aspect. I won’t try to present a detailed analysis here, but I do want to offer the part of Schorsch’s commentary I presented in class:

The Torah never speaks of Satan, for that would compromise its austere monotheism as affirmed by the Shema, but only of a heart that is hardened or uncircumcised. The culprit lies within.

-ibid, pg 594

The class became momentarily confused after I stopped talking but quickly reoriented around Dean’s original question and started describing all the bad things Satan has done to them. I even added the following for good measure but it didn’t help:

But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.

James 1:14-15 (NASB)

Eve and the SerpentWhile other parts of the Apostolic Scriptures refer to the Adversary, here James (Jacob), the brother of the Master says “when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust, not by Satan or some evil external force that enticed him.

This was the only item in the Sunday school notes I intended on addressing and seeing how my point fell flat on its face, I decided to remain silent for the rest of the class time. But when discussing Acts 27:27-32, one of the questions was:

What proper role do our efforts play in God’s will for us?

Fortunately, people were able to articulate that we actually do have a role, we have things to do, we have stuff we must achieve, even though God doesn’t need our help. We are responsible.

That’s what I was trying to say. One of the fellows in class referred back to my comment when discussing “our efforts” and I was grateful. Someone got it.

It’s just that the Adversary gets a lot of credit, too much in my opinion, when things foul up in the life of a Christian.

I know this is a ridiculous example, but it appeared in my local newspaper and I think deserves a mention:

Last December, Alexander Gonzalez Garcia blamed Satan for causing him to molest a 12-year-old girl in a storage room at the Nampa Seventh-Day Adventist Church where he served as a deacon.

from “With church response: Ex-deacon in Nampa sentenced to prison for molesting girl”
The Idaho Statesman

No, I don’t think anyone at the church I attend would fail to hold this person responsible for his acts of sexual abuse and go directly to Satan, but I don’t doubt they’d see Satan as involved.

But whatever happened to personal responsibility? Whatever happened to being accountable for your own sins. Whether you are tempted by an evil supernatural entity or your own human character flaws are getting in the way, the result is the same. You have a choice to make. You either choose God’s will or your will.

Pastor Bill was in Sunday school class and when I mentioned looking at the guy in the mirror rather than pointing the finger at Satan when life turns to doggie doo, he looked momentarily startled and said we had three enemies: Satan, the world, and our sin nature. I popped right back that it was our own nature that’s our first and worst enemy. I think he nodded “yes,” but I’m not sure. Christianity pays a lot of attention to an entity we’re supposed to stay as far away from as possible. Maybe we’re giving him more credit (and along with it, more “glory”) than we ought to.

Instead of focusing on the author of evil in our lives, how about we cleave to the author of all that is good.

Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.

James 1:12 (NASB)

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day.

Deuteronomy 6:4-6 (JPS Tanakh)

…but also the appearance of the Shema in this week’s parashah. I wish to draw your attention to but a single phrase — al levav’kha, “upon your heart” — at the end of verse 7 in chapter 6.

The function of the verse is to speak of the heart as the locus of our unbounded love for God. More concretely, we are instructed to articulate that love by embracing God’s commandments. Our lifelong challenge is to internalize a set of beliefs, values, and actions that is not self-generated, to take what feels alien and unnatural for us and make it our own. The words “upon your heart” identify the scene of battle. It is within the hidden confines of the human heart that our impulses frustrate our ideals. The blood-stained pages of history are but a mirror of our conflicted hearts. To quote Jeremiah, “Most devious is the heart; it is perverse — who can fathom it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)

-Schorsch, pg 593

I regret that it is not appropriate for me to recite the Shema daily or even on Shabbat because Schorch is describing a human battle, not just a Jewish battle. But God has promised the House of Judah and the House of Israel that one day it will be possible for them to win that battle.

“But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.

Jeremiah 31:33 (NASB)

heart in the sandThrough a rather long and not easily understood process, I have learned that the New Covenant God will make with Israel, that is, the Jewish people, will also apply its blessings to the people of the nations who cleave to the God of Israel through faith in the Messiah who Paul called “rich root of the olive tree.” (Romans 11:17)

I look forward to that day when my heart will be circumcised and His Word will be written on it. I grow so very tired of having to deal with myself every day as the person I am. The battle is hard, and it’s been going on far too long, and I only have myself to blame.

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The Primordial Serpent

SerpentWhen people saw the snake, they understood that in order to elicit this transcendent divinity and be healed, they had to transform their own, inner “snake” – their evil inclination – into a force of good…The evil inclination impels us to sin for comfort, pleasure, or excitement. When we convince it that the truest comfort, pleasure, and excitement lie in holiness, it plunges headlong into fulfilling G-d’s purpose on earth, endowing our drive toward divinity with much greater power than it could have had otherwise. Thus, the initially evil inclination becomes the source of merit and goodness. The snake is transformed from the source of death to the agent of life.

From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe;
adapted by Rabbi Moshe Yaakov Wisnefsky
“Transforming the Primordial Snake”
[Based on Likutei Sichot vol. 13, pp. 75-77]
Kabbalah Online

This also alludes to the [Primordial] Snake. Originally, he was the tail and Adam was the head, but [because of the Primordial Sin] this was inverted and the snake became the head and Adam the tail.

From the teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria
adapted by Rabbi Moshe Yaakov Wisnefsky
“The Snake at the Sea’s End”
Chabad.org

This is Part 2 in a 3-part series. Before reading this, see Part 1: Overcoming Evil.

The serpent of Eden isn’t quite what you expect him to be when you encounter him in Judaism, and particularly within the realm of Kabbalah. While not an entirely pleasant fellow, he doesn’t seem to be quite as bad as Christianity paints him. The “Transforming the Primordial Snake” article quoted above tells us that the serpent; the evil inclination within us, “impels us to sin for comfort, pleasure, or excitement”. The commentary goes on to explain that we can “convince” the evil inclination that the best way to meet its goal is to meet our goal of a life of holiness. Once the “serpent” is sold on this idea, the “snake is transformed from the source of death to the agent of life”.

Makes the snake sound almost reasonable, doesn’t it? However, the teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria paint a darker portrait:

In the Zohar, the imagery of the snake putting its tail in its mouth is used to illustrate the sin of “the evil tongue”, i.e. slander, a gross misuse of the power of speech. (Zohar III:205b) People commit this sin when material consciousness gets the better of them. As is explained in the Tanya (ch. 32), those who give their bodies preeminence over their souls see only the outer shell of their fellow man, which differentiates between people, and are oblivious to the inner souls. They thus fall into the sin of hatred, which leads to slander.

Rabbi Luria makes slander sound awful, but how bad can it be? I mean, it’s not as bad as say, murder, is it?

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of gehinnom. –Matthew 5:21-22

I guess it is that bad.

But who is the serpent? Is it some sort of talking animal, like Balaam’s donkey or is this Satan, the Adversary, in disguise? Let’s cut to the chase and look at him from a traditional Jewish perspective:

Satan in Judaism is a very different beast than satan in popular culture (pun intended)

The snake in the garden of Eden is identified as the personification of the “Yetzerh Harah” (Bad/evil will/desires/inclination) by the midrashim.

The Talmud also states that the Yetzer Harah, Satan, and the angel of death are one. (Some might understand this to mean that they are ‘bad things’ which really are good, and necessary.

In Judaism, the Satan is an angel commanded by Gd to accuse human beings of wrong things. In modern terms, you might call satan the heavenly prosecutor, who seeks to bring all people to court.

-from the Jewish Life and Learning discussion board

Eve and the SerpentThat would seem to mesh somewhat with the Christian interpretation, however, the person who made this post offered a follow up:

A strict reading of the bible would tell you just a snake, and nothing else. An interpreted reading of the bible based on Jewish sources would tell you its the Evil Inclination. An interpreted reading of the interpretation based on Jewish sources would tell you that the snake represents three things. (Which, could be seen as a reason for only the serpent to be mentioned in the first place)

This is consistent with other Jewish sources which state that Adam personified the Good Inclination while the serpent was the embodiment of the Evil Inclination. In Kabbalistic thought, the serpent wasn’t so much a personality as a force of nature, or at least a representation of other forces. The serpent was the external manifestation of the evil inclination which, once Adam and Eve sinned, became man’s internal inclination for evil.

However, as I’ve heard it said just recently, “let Scripture interpret Scripture”:

The great dragon was hurled down – that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him. –Revelation 12:9

And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. –Revelation 20:1-2

Now we have to assume that the “ancient serpent” being referred to in these verses is the same one we see tempting Eve in the Garden, but that’s an assumption Christianity takes for granted. It’s not one that Judaism would make for obvious reasons.

A recent CNN news story, which was critical of the ability of many Christians to read and remember the Bible correctly (that part seems sadly true) suggested that the serpent was just a serpent (albeit an intelligent and talking one) and that the Adversary (HaSatan) was never mentioned. While it is true, Genesis doesn’t go out of its way to say, “Hey! The snake is the devil!”, the passages from Revelation seem to be a “smoking gun”.

Judah Himango started a conversation about this topic on his Kineti L’Tziyon blog the other day, and from his point of view, the matter is settled. Still, looking at the serpent through the lens of Jewish mysticism, there’s more to his story than meets the eye. Part 3 of this series, Healing the Wounded, will cover that tale in the next “morning meditation”.