IN A PERFECT WORLD
I don’t know how many of you have taken any significant amount time, in the midst of your busy workday, to ponder the nature of evil. It’s not something that comes up a lot in casual conversation.
We’re all good people, or at least trying to be. Evil feels like something remote from us, beyond the pale. Evil marches in goose-step formation behind the banner of a swastika. Evil wears the face of a serial killer on the front pages of tabloid newspapers. Evil has nothing to do with us. Or does it?
I’ve always had a hard time understanding how evil works. For example, the same monsters that set about methodically exterminating millions of innocent men, women and children in World War Two were apparently capable of being loving and generous people in other areas of their lives. They had families and friends. They appreciated good music and good literature. How can evil coexist in the same place as non-evil? A perplexing question.
To try to answer it, I think we need to expand our definition of evil. Maybe it’s not just a distant shadow on the horizon. Maybe it actually lives a lot closer to home.
Maybe, if we try hard, we can actually begin to recognize tiny seedlings of it within ourselves.
To do that, we need to apply a microscope to a concept that seems too large, too horrific, for our minds to embrace. If the definition of evil is the Holocaust, then it truly has nothing to do with us. If the face of evil looks like Attila the Hun or Jack the Ripper, we are likewise safe from comparison. If, however, we were to take a tiny subsection of the drive that prompts those nightmares and observe it very closely, we might begin to see some things look disconcertingly familiar.
You and I may not be proponents of murder, mass or otherwise… but can we honestly say that we’ve never killed anyone’s happiness though our neglect or our criticism? We may have never robbed a poor widow or orphan of their life savings, but we all know how easy it is to steal away a person’s self-esteem with a thoughtless word, or his peace of mind with a misplaced smirk.
We are neither sociopaths nor tyrants. We consider evil to be an utterly loathsome thing. And still, we allow bits and pieces of it to enter our psyches.
Evil, it seems, is not a single, monolithic entity. It’s a matter of degree.
When a world leader or any other powerful person wishes to make himself at home somewhere, his servants will go ahead to prepare the place first. They’ll check out the accommodations, bring in bountiful supplies, and generally do their best to make sure their master will have a comfortable environment when he arrives.
What are the servants of evil that work just as industriously to set the stage within our own hearts?
First, let’s take a step back and ask: why does evil find a more accommodating home in our hearts? Why not our minds? I think it’s because our minds are more attuned to reality and logic than our emotions are. If we know that something is right and something else is wrong, it’s natural for us to embrace the former and avoid the latter. The problem is that knowing things is not the same as feeling them.
Our intellects may have all the knowledge it needs to keep us on the straight and narrow, but our emotions can, and do, sabotage that knowledge. How? By opening the door to the advance servants of evil.
One of evil’s finest servants is the notion of exemption. “Hey, I’m a good person. I do everything I’m supposed to… except for (x, y or z). That’s just too hard for me.” Or “I’m a good person. I treat everyone wonderfully… except for (X, Y, or Z). She simply drives me crazy!”
In other words, we manage to keep ourselves firmly in the “good” category through judicious use of exemptions. Somehow, we convince ourselves that it’s okay to leave that one arduous mitzvah, or that one difficult person, out of the equation. Once we’ve done that, the rest is easy. Evil has no place in our good lives… except in the portion we’ve so blithely exempted from goodness.
Imagine having two pages of numbers to add up. Once you’ve carefully totted up the numbers on the first page, you never have to go back. You simply take the total from the bottom of page one and start calculating the sum of your second page moving forward from there. In the same way, when we make exemptions to our good behavior, we no longer start at the beginning. We begin our self-assessment at the top of Page Two.
Another thing we do to help evil feel at home is to justify it. “How can anyone expect me to be nice to So-and-So when she’s (so critical) (so needy) (such a pain in the neck)?” Or, “I’m just not a morning person. Getting up for minyan is too hard for someone like me.” Or the best one: “Hashem made me this way!”
We decide that our negative behavior is completely justified under the circumstances. And then we go our merry way… not realizing that we’ve just made a comfy bed for evil and invited him to climb right in.
Denial is another powerful tool that the yetzer hara uses to introduce tiny seeds of badness into our lives. It obscures our vision, so that we don’t recognize evil even when it’s right in our face. For example, viewing the inveterate gossipmonger as a charming person who just has a huge need to vent a lot. Or regarding a tendency to be tight-fisted toward the needy as a sign of prudent living.
The list goes on, ad infinitum. Evil can wear many disguises, and our vulnerable hearts are all too easily snared by appearance rather than substance. If it doesn’t look like evil, it can’t be evil. Right?
Last, but certainly not least, is a powerful tool called habit. Chazal tell us that repeating an aveirah makes it eventually appear permissible in our eyes. When we form the habit of letting tiny evils creep into our thinking and our conduct, they will soon feel as if they belong there. That plays right into our denial, which stems from an inability to recognize parts of our own selves as alien or bad.
Four strong and willing servants that pave the way for evil. How do we circumvent them?
The Torah is how.
Hashem, in His infinite kindness, has given us a guidebook to goodness! That means that every single thing He wrote there is crucial for us to know and to follow. These are not merely suggestions. They are an armory of weapons for us to use in the never-ending battle that we wage every day. They are our defense against Evil.
When He urges us to love our fellow Jews the way we love our own selves, He is telling us that doing so is the way to stop ourselves from devising all those treacherous exemptions and justifications.
When He orders us to perform certain practices on a regular basis, He is advising us that these practices will bring us close to Him, the source of goodness. He is showing us the clearest way to choose good and to banish anything that is less than good from our lives.
No, we don’t have to take time out of our busy days to ponder the nature of Evil. We just have to know how to keep away from it. Luckily, we have the best manual in the world to tell us how.
And because Hashem knows how powerfully we human beings are motivated by self-interest, He offers us the most incredible reward of all for embracing goodness and rejecting evil. He offers us eternal life together with Him!
Can Evil offer a better deal than that?