Saturday, February 20, 2010

You are the End of Evil

We all know that in Judaism, there’s a blessing for everything: blessings for when we wake up, blessings for when we go to sleep. Blessings for when we eat and blessings for simchas. Our ancient sages teach us that just as we bless for the good, so too, we bless even when bad things befall us. When tragedy strikes, we say ‘Baruch Dayan ha’Emet,’ blessed is God, Judge of Truth—the undeniable truth is that when tragedy strikes, we say ‘so be it,’ blessed be God. I would like us to take a moment to contemplate the implications of this notion: we bless not only the good, but we bless evil as well! When you think about it that way, it seems almost impossible to believe. We’re the Jewish people, the people of Justice! We’re all about taking action in the world to fight against all oppression and injustice! How could we possibly bless evil in any way? We have lived through centuries of persecution, of Nazis, of terrorists. We live in a world filled with violence and abuse and rape and murder and oppression of all kinds. Bless the evil?! Aren’t we supposed to stamp it out and only uphold the good?!

In this week’s Parashah, Trumah, we receive instructions for how to build the Mishkan, the sacred tent, or Tabernacle, of God’s presence in the wilderness. The parashah goes into extraordinary detail about every last stitch that goes into that Mishkan. Why so much detail? Our sages teach us that every element of that Mishkan can be seen as allegory into our very humanity—even into the mysteries of good and evil. So, for example, the Torah says “Va’asita et hak’rashim lamishkan atzei shitim omdim,” “You shall make [wooden] planks for the Tabernacle of acacia wood, upright.” The eighteenth century commentary, the Degel Machaneh Ephraim explains[1] that according to Jewish tradition, those wooden planks actually symbolize the human being. Those wooden planks are called ‘K’rashim,’ which is very close to the Hebrew word ‘K’sharim,’ which means ‘connections.’ So the hidden meaning in this text is that we human beings are the ‘kesher,’ or the connection between Heaven and earth! So every time we see those planks in the Tabernacle, we are reminded that we are to be the connection between the Divine and the earthly, between spirit and the corporeal, and most importantly—we are the Kesher, the link between good and evil! It all hinges on us, and our choices and actions, says the Degel Machaneh Ephraim! Our job in this life is to stay “mekusharim,” connected to Heaven. Don’t get caught up in ‘sheker,’ in falsehood, in lies, in evil—instead see and reconnect everything, even the evil we experience with its Source of goodness in Heaven. In other words, says the Degel, our job is “la’sot mera shebahem tov,” “to make the evil good!” In teaching about those wooden planks in the Mishkan, the Degel makes an astonishing claim, that “even the quality of evil, at its deepest source, is good!”

There is a fanciful legend told of the Baal Shem Tov, the great founder of Hasidism. Before I tell the story, a word of caveat: Hasidic stories can sometimes be wildly surreal, bringing in elements from the Jewish tradition, and also from the surrounding folk culture as well, but the message is entirely Jewish. This is one such legend: When the Baal Shem Tov was only a boy of ten, he was so gifted and so mekushar, so connected to the beauty and wonder of God’s world, that each morning on their way to school, all the children would follow the young Baal Shem Tov into the woods and into the fields to pick garlands, to sing joyful songs, and to listen in silence to the music of the earth. So perfect was their love of God’s world, that Satan decided to confound this perfection. (Yes, Satan, is a real and time-honored character in Jewish literature as well as Christianity. Unlike Christianity, however, Satan is NOT the devil in Judaism. He is merely an agent of God whose role is to get us to confront the reality of evil.) It happened that in those very woods, there lived a werewolf. By day, he was a lone woodsman. By night, he would sprout fangs and fur and howl at the moon, and collapse in exhaustion at dawn, returned to the form of a man. Satan came upon this woodsman, took out his heart, and replaced it with Satan’s own heart of evil. As soon as this happened, the woodsman became the most terrifying beast imaginable. So in the morning, when the children came to rejoice in God’s world in the field, the monster appeared at the edge of the forest, now with shoulders stretching from horizon to horizon, with fire coming from its nostrils along with smoke blotting out the very light of the sun. The children screamed in mortal panic, all except one, the young Baal Shem Tov, who calmly, gently walked up to the beast. He approached the monster closer and closer, till he merged with the monster’s very being. Once there, he lovingly reached in and grasped its heart of evil in the palm of his hand. There, he and the children beheld the heart, quivering like a bird with a broken wing. They saw that in the darkness of that heart, there was only fear and self-loathing. And the Baal Shem Tov gently placed that heart onto the ground, which opened wide and allowed that heart to sink deep into the forgiving earth. With that, monster was vanquished, and the light of the sun returned.[2]

What is this story telling us? The same astonishing notion that the Degel was teaching: that even evil itself is nothing to fear when we look deeply into it. In the Mishnah, in Pirkei Avot, the rabbis famously ask, “Who is wise? He who learns from all human beings.” (Avot 4:1) In every human being being there is the yetzer hatov, the inclination to do good, and there is also the yetzer hara, the inclination to do evil. “B’chol derachecha da’ehu,” “Know God in all your ways,” says the book of Proverbs (3:6). Even the evil ways of our heart, says the Degel, are our teacher. When we come to know and understand our impulse to act out of evil, then we can transform it to the good.

Rabbi Mikhal taught his disciples that the inner desire of the Yetzer HaRa, the evil urge, is, in fact, to become good! The yetzer hara “wants to become good by driving man to overcome it and to make it good. And that is Satan’s secret request to the man he is trying to [frighten or] seduce: ‘Let us leave this disgraceful state and [return to God], so that I too may [rise up in holiness with you], although I seem to oppose, to disturb and hinder you.”[3] Our line from parashat Trumah teaches this very same truth, says the Degel Machane Ephraim. Those wooden planks are made of “atzei shitim omdim,” ”upright acacia wood.” ‘Atzei shitim,’ says the degel, is allegorical code for the aytzah, the ‘advice’ of Satan,’ –even the urging of Satan can be upright when we know how to approach it!

Hillel Zeitlin was a brilliant Hasidic master teacher who lived in the first part of the 20th century. He was an expert in multiple fields—from Kabbalah to the philosophy of Nietzsche. Zeitlin himself was murdered by the Nazi’s on his way to Treblinka, even as he was garbed in his Tallit and Tefilin. Zeitlin explains this deepest Jewish understanding of evil, that in truth, there is nothing but the light of God. As the light descends from its Source in the Divine, down to ever-more material and corporeal realms, that light becomes heavier and ever more clouded and dark and hidden. And when God’s light is hidden, we call it ‘evil,’ and those who cleave to materiality we call ‘evil,’ or ‘sinners.’ However, when a person “begins to see the divinity that is present in this material world, he repairs and elevates the evil [to its original divine source]. In other words, he elevates the divinity that is hidden in the heavy fog of corporeality, and thus returns the Godly light to its source [to goodness!].”

What does all of this mean? On the simplest level, it’s an instruction to look at your own yetzer hara, your own selfish impulses in life. Look at eating and drinking for example: eating and drinking can be gluttonous, binging, destructive behaviors, or they can become a sacred meal shared with family and community to celebrate our highest values. Look at sex. Sex can be abusive and cruel and victimizing, or it can be the most sacred expression of love, respect, and holiness. Eating and sexuality are, in their essence, good! They are about preserving and continuing and rejoicing in life itself. But in our own confusion we can either turn these to evil, or liberate these actions to the goodness that they truly are. This teaching that I bring today is not only about transforming our impulses. It extends to any and every experience of evil in the world!...

A Hasid asked the Seer of Lublin: The Mishnah says, “Man should thank God for evil and praise God,” and the Talmud adds, “with joy and a tranquil heart.” How could that be?!

The tzadik could hear that the question sprang from a troubled heart. “You do not understand the Talmud,” he said. “And I do not understand even the Mishnah. For is there really any evil in the world?”[4]

What could the great Seer of Lublin possibly mean by this cryptic answering a question with another question? Is he really denying the existence of evil?! Of course not! It’s not that this great tzadik would ignore Nazis and abusers and murderers. What he’s doing is throwing this deepest question of life back to the student, and to us all. Yes, Baruch Dayan Emet, blessed is this awesome, terrible world where we experience death and evil! Don’t deny the evil! Not at all—quite the opposite! Look at the evil. Look deeply into every experience of evil you may, God forbid, come to know! Reach deeply into that heart of evil, hold it gently in the palm of your hand, and plumb its darkness. What do you see? Do you see a world where bad things happen to good people? Do you see a world that allowed a Holocaust to happen? Where terrorists still strike down the innocent? Keep looking at it! Do you see the heart of fear and confusion and self-loathing that brings that evil about? Do you see that same fear in your own heart?

Before you point the finger of blame at God for creating such a world, remember who YOU are! You are the Kesher, the link between God and this imperfect world, between good and evil! YOU ARE the very way that God ends evil in this world. The deepest question of life is NOT ‘why did God create evil?’ but rather, ‘How could we just give up because there is evil?’ The point of life itself is not to become dark and embittered because there is evil in the world, but to ask, ‘What must I do now?’ What can I do to end persecution, murder, abuse, injustice in this world, and in my own heart? This is what it means to be a Jew, a Light to the Nations, an ‘Am Kadosh—a people who bring holiness to the world by transforming the evil in our hearts into its truest essence, which was always goodness. May we indeed transform our hearts to this goodness, and therefore transform the world.


[1] Sefer Degel Machaneh Ephraim, Parashat Trumah, Dibur HaMatchil, “Va’Asita”

[2] Adapted from a story told by Gerald Fierst, Tikun Olam: Stories to Heal the World. Copyright ©1994

[3] Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: The Early Masters. Vol 1. New York, Schocken Books, 1947. P. 145.

[4] Ibid, p. 318

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