Pondering the Question of Evil

Why is there so much evil in the world? That question has challenged philosophers and scholars since time began. Spend just 30 minutes watching the national news—with its usual display of wars, man’s injustice to his fellow man, murders, violent crime, and war—and it becomes obvious why so many people ask such a question.

For centuries Jewish people have pondered the question of evil. In a book titled Understanding Judaism, Eugene Borowitz explained sin (or evil) this way: “Judaism knows there are many influences on us. Despite them, it insists that we are free and so, responsible.” The book of Ben Sirach (translated into Greek about 132 B.C.) sums up the Jewish view this way:

Don’t say “God made me do evil” for God doesn’t want people to be evil. . . . If you want to, you can keep the commandments. Besides, it’s simple sense to do what God wants. Life and death are in front of you. You’ll get what you choose.

Every spring Jewish people the world over search their homes to remove all hametz(leaven) before they celebrate the feast of Passover. Using a candle to provide light, a large feather to sweep up the leaven, and a large wooden spoon to collect it in, they gather the hametz and cast it out of their homes. This tradition binds them with their ancestors who performed the same symbolic ceremony; and it connects leaven with evil. A quote from a Passover Haggadah (the booklet used to direct the celebration of Passover) explains the custom: “By removing the leaven from our homes we symbolize our desire for liberation from the corrupting influences which make us subservient to our passions and evil desires.”

Between the two biblical feasts of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), Jewish people go to a moving creek or river near their homes. There they recite a prayer and cast bread (leaven) into the moving water. As the water carries the bread away, they express their desire before God that He will carry their sins far from them. This ceremony is called Tashlich and, like casting out the Passover leaven, is symbolic of removing sin or evil.

These unique practices in two of Israel’s seven biblical feasts emphasize rabbinic Judaism’s strong desire to deal with the issue of sin and its consequences.

While attending Hebrew school as a boy, I was taught that people possess two urges that battle inside them every day: the yetzer ha-ra, the urge to do bad, and the yetzer ha-tov, the urge to do good. The rabbis arrived at this position by interpreting the Hebrew word vayyitzer(formed) found in Genesis 2:7: “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground.” According to many rabbis, the two yods (like the English letter y) stand for the word yetzer, which means “impulse.” This they believe indicates that man was created with two impulses, one good (yetzer ha-tov) and one evil (yetzer ha-ra).

Judaism has long been regarded as a religion that emphasizes mitzvot, or good deeds. It teaches that there are 365 positive deeds and 248 negative ones, for a total of 613. A constant unction exists to strive to follow the Law. Yet the urge to disobey also is constant. Commenting on the battle of these two urges, YehielMikhal, the Hassidic Rebbe of Zlotchov, put it this way: “One of the favorite tricks of the evil urge is to tell people that they really ought to be perfect. When they find they can’t be they give in to the evil urge altogether.”

Rabbinic Judaism does not believe in the depravity of man, as does biblical Christianity. Yet the consensus of Jewish thought is that the good impulse is not innate but, rather, comes on a person later in life.

In the book What Christians Should Know About Jews and Judaism, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein expressed a long-held Jewish view: “Although the rabbis regarded man as intrinsically pure, they readily acknowledged that he is in possession of both a ‘good and a bad inclination.’” Rabbinic Judaism does not believe in the depravity of man, as does biblical Christianity. Yet the consensus of Jewish thought is that the good impulse is not innate but, rather, comes on a person later in life. Some believe it comes gradually, growing stronger over time. Others believe it comes all at once at the time of bar/bat mitzvah, when, according to the rabbis, individuals become accountable for their own sins.

The yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination, is likened to selfishness. A rabbinic story explains it this way: The evil inclination within man lusts only after what is forbidden. On the Day of Atonement, when eating and drinking are strictly prohibited, Rabbi Mana visited Rabbi Haggai, who was sick. Rabbi Haggai complained, “I am very thirsty.” Rabbi Manna said to him, “Seeing that you are sick, you may drink.” After a while, Rabbi Mana returned and asked Rabbi Haggai, “How is your thirst?” Rabbi Haggai replied, “The moment you permitted me to drink, my thirst disappeared.”

When left to run amok, unchecked by the yetzer ha-tov, these selfish desires can produce terrible consequences. For example, nothing is wrong with hunger; but if it leads one to steal food, it is wrong. Nothing is wrong with sexual desire; but if it leads one to commit adultery, it is wrong.

Because they believe that God formed (vayyitzer) man with these two urges, the rabbis contend that the yetzer ha-ra (evil inclination) can be a positive force. Commenting on Ecclesiastes 4:4, the Talmud states, “King Solomon taught that all labor and skillful enterprise come from men’s envy of each other” (Genesis, Rabbah 9:7). The Midrash (rabbinic writings) reports that without the evil inclination, “a man would not build a house or marry or have children or engage in commerce.”

The idea of a fallen angel (Satan) who makes life miserable for people is not generally accepted within Judaism. Instead, Judaism teaches that people make conscious choices and are entirely responsible for which impulses they follow. However, even though Jewish people may reject the concept of Satan working in the world, the Jewish Scriptures teach it nonetheless, as demonstrated in the books of Job, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and 1 Chronicles, which clearly depict a literal Satan. His activities are described in Job 2 and Isaiah 14; his appearance is described in Ezekiel 28; and his name is given in Job 2 and 1 Chronicles 21. Yet most Jewish people say Satan is a fable used to explain the existence of evil. His description in the Bible is regarded as the personification of each person’s selfish desires. Some observant Jews teach that the yetzerhara, Satan, and the angel of death are one and the same.

Judaism acknowledges the constant temptation to do what is bad, wrong, or evil. When God gave the Law to the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai, He wanted them to follow His commands. Thus Jewish people know what is right and good. They are taught to follow the yetzer ha-tov, the good inclination, to hate what is evil and cling to what is good. When they fail, the result is guilt.

Guilt has dominated the Jewish experience for years. In fact, it often protects Jewish individuals from yielding to the “evil urge” and pushes them to follow the good.

The Talmud addresses this subject when it comments on 2 Samuel 12:4: “The yetzer ha-rais first called a passerby, then a guest and, finally, one who occupies the house. When a man sins and repeats the sin, it no longer seems to him as forbidden” (Yoma 88b).

How does Judaism deal with the whole sin issue? Most Jewish people would say they deal with sin once a year during Yom Kippur when they spend an entire day in the synagogue, fasting and praying. Therein lies a fundamental difference between modern Judaism and biblical Christianity.

Bible-believing Christians consider every word of the Holy Scriptures to be the Word of God—including, of course, the Old Testament. Thus creation, the flood, and the tower of Babel are actual, historical events. Equally as true is the account of satanic temptation and the fall of man, recorded in Genesis 3. The Bible says Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate of the forbidden fruit. Their disobedience to God’s command changed them and their progeny forever. The Bible also says that God created man in His own image and that, after the fall, “Adam lived an hundred and thirty years, and begot a son in his own likeness, after his image; and called his name Seth” (Gen. 5:3, italics added). To be sure, Seth possessed remnants of God’s image; but when his father, Adam, had sinned, God’s image within man became marred. Christians believe that human beings, beginning with Adam, pass this marred image of God to every child who is born. Jewish Scripture supports the concept that every person is born with a sin nature and is not innately good but, rather, utterly depraved: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9). “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). Such was the consequence of Adam’s sin.

Why is there so much evil in the world? Because the human heart is “desperately wicked.” Jesus understood the real meaning of leaven when He commented on the hard-heartedness of many of the Pharisees. He wanted His disciples to ponder the question of evil and, as they did so, to consider the only true cure for human depravity—Him:

Who his own self bore our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness; by whose stripes ye were healed (1 Pet. 2:24).

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