Aug 18 2017

On the Reality and Power of Evil

On the Reality and Power of Evil- Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

In her novel The Wonder Worker, Susan Howatch warns us of a fact of life which we would all much rather ignore, as she writes, “Evil exists. Those who forget that fact or ignore it or reject it are at best taking a big risk and at worst conniving at their own destruction.” We as a society are collectively taking this risk and consequently experiencing the breakdown of our standards and norms. The High Holidays are the antidote for this denial of the reality of evil. Once a year, we set aside a time on which we not only acknowledge but dwell with our own yetzer ha-ra, our inclination towards evil. This period culminates with Yom Kippur. On 364 days of the year we may pretend that we’re basically good people and that that’s all that matters. On this one day we admit the enormity of the temptation to do wrong in our lives and our weakness to resist. The tendency of the human heart, we read in Genesis, is towards evil from our youth. While we do not believe in original sin, we also do not believe in original goodness.   Speaking of the yetzer ha-ra, the inclination towards evil, the Hassidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzkhak of Berditschev taught, “Make peace with your yetzer ha-ra and put it to use for the good of the world.”

Not only is the self-flagellation of Yom Kippur not an unhealthy thing, it is precisely the prescription we need to raise ourselves up to live lives of holiness and humility in the year ahead. The first step in the process of teshuva is acknowledging that we have done wrong.

The Prophet Isaiah once made this dramatic statement (45:7): ‘Thus said Adonai. . .I am the shaper of light and the creator of darkness; the maker of peace and the creator of evil.’ God as the author of evil? That last clause disturbed the Rabbis as much as it disturbs us. So much so that the Sages changed it when they quoted it in the morning blessing: ‘Blessed are You, Adonai, Ruler of the universe, shaper of light and creator of darkness; maker of peace and creator of all.’ “Evil” in the original text becomes “all” in the rabbinic version.

The Zoroastrians of old conceived a dualistic world in which there were two separate powers which co-existed- a God of light and a God of darkness. They had no problem explaining the existence of evil in the universe- it is simply the result of the struggle between these two forces. Our monotheistic tradition resolved the conflict in a way we moderns find terribly difficult to comprehend- God is, indeed, the source of both light and darkness. It is for this reason that the rabbis wisely created a blessing for hearing bad news, acknowledging the reality that suffering, too, has its source in God’s design- it is built into the universe as a result of our physical being and our freedom of choice.

We speak of God as Elohim- the God of nature, and as Adonai- the source of morality. And we acknowledge that God is One, that the Holy One combines these two aspects of being. We who are formed in the image of God must also wrestle with these two tendencies within our own souls.

Acknowledging the force of the yetzer ha-ra, the rabbis understand it as a potentially useful phenomenon. This is also difficult to understand. Wouldn’t we be better off if we were programmed to do only good? If there were no possibility of evil and no suffering due to the choices people make? No, they claim, for, were it not for the yetzer ha-ra, people would not build homes, marry, bear children or engage in business. Pure and beautiful things, we learn, can be created even from motives which are less than honorable, and so we are urged to worship God with our yetzer ha-ra, our evil inclination, as much as with our yetzer ha-tov, our good inclination. . “If everything comes from God”, taught Rabbi Yehuda, “then everything contains a spark of goodness- even the yetzer ha-ra.”[1]

So, in its wisdom, the tradition does not pray for the extinction of the yetzer ha-ra, but for its sublimation in the service of the holy. The Talmud depicts the evil inclination as a young, fiery lion emerging from the Holy of Holies. It is seized and imprisoned by the sages for three days. But, during this time, they looked unsuccessfully throughout the country for one fresh egg, and couldn’t find it.[2] They reluctantly acknowledged that the libido, the life force, was necessary for civilization. They prayed, then, for “half mercy”. “Let the libido of the evil temptation be preserved, but let it be limited to lawful acts. Let lust exist, but let it be limited to one’s spouse. Let competition prevail, but let it be limited to legitimate businesses.”[3] This prayer, too, went unanswered- we must take responsibility for our own choices in this world, applauding noble and worthy actions and descrying wrong and evil decisions. Would it be better if humanity were programmed to only do good? If the consequences of our material nature were only positive? Perhaps. But that’s not the way it is, and some have even suggested that God ought to have a Divine Day of Atonement to ask us for our forgiveness for setting the world up in this way.

In his article on “Contemplating the Reality of Evil”, William Strongin suggests that evil does not stem merely from ignorance or want, that it is a vital power within every human, without which we could not exist. Yes, it is a violent force that seeks to destroy yes, yet it is simultaneously the power that causes us to grow and change and evolve.[4]

In other words, it is out there, it is real, and it is, increasingly, coming to a neighborhood near you! While the power of the yetzer ha-ra can be harnessed for good, without a sense of discipline and values, it can and does cause phenomenal destruction and pain. One need only turn on the news or pick up a newspaper to see tragic examples of the yetzer ha-ra untamed.

We need to confront this terrible truth without flinching.   The place to begin is within our own hearts and the time is now. As we chant the Viddui and the Al Kheyt in the coming days, we must recognize on the deepest level the wrongs of which we are all too capable. It’s not about ignorance out there. It’s not about social forces, economic circumstances, parents, schools, the media, violence, racism. It’s about the potential within each of us for which we must take responsibility.

Leonard Cohen wrote a powerful poem, “All There Is To Know About Adolph Eichmann” in which he graphically portrays what Hannah Arendt dubbed, “the banality of evil”.

All There Is To Know About Adolph Eichmann

EYES:. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Medium

HAIR:. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Medium

WEIGHT:. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Medium

HEIGHT:. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Medium

DISTINGUISHING FEATURES:. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . None
NUMBER OF FINGERS:. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Ten

NUMBER OF TOES:. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . Ten

INTELLIGENCE. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Medium


What did you expect?


Oversize incisors?

Green saliva?



We would like the Adolph Eichmanns of the world to have talons, oversize incisors, green saliva. How comforting it would be to be able to recognize evil clearly and definitively, and to see it as something different and apart from our own lives. The fact that evil doers are indistinguishable is infinitely more threatening.

The story of civilization consists of our strategies for subduing the expression of evil. The way of Torah and mitzvot is our Jewish way to tame the beast within. From a Jewish perspective, writes Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, “the struggle for virtue is itself a virtue.”[5] “Proper upbringing causes us to internalize these strategies, making them nearly instantaneous and automatic. We thus have so many ongoing successes in this redemption of natural Evil that we are prone to forget that every moment we are fighting the good fight. To forget is dangerous. Evil is relentless. It is of primary importance that we remember that every act of virtue is a triumph over Evil, and that Evil seeks to find the one act we cannot redeem. Being wary at least prevents the attack from being an ambush.”[6] “Those who flee temptation”, it has wryly been noted, “generally leave a forwarding address.”[7]

And how long must we struggle with our own yetzer ha-ra. Forever. The good news is that the more we choose to do good, the more it becomes part of our fundamental character. As we build our physical muscles through exercise, so we can build our yetzer ha-tov, our inclination towards good, our moral nature, through our acts of righteousness.

Charlotte Bronte’s powerful depiction of this struggle bears repeating, as she writes in Jane Eyre, “Laws and principles are not for times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigor; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual conscience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth- so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane- quite insane, with my veins running fire and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by; there I plant my foot.”[8]

What she refers to as preconceived opinions and foregone determinations, we understand as the path of mitzvot and the moral legacy of our tradition. We must learn and embrace and reinforce these teachings on a daily basis, if we are to have the fortitude to withstand the temptation of evil. When the moment comes to make the most difficult decision, we may not have time to debate the options. We will need to rely on the strong virtuous instinct we have worked to develop.

“We are commanded not merely to refrain from evil acts, but to hate Evil. To hate it. Many would like to flinch, to obscure the meaning of this commandment and whitewash the term ‘hate.’ But it is our destiny to be empowered by Evil, which we must hate. Does this mean we must hate our innermost selves? Of course not. It means that we must violently grab our own life-force and twist it into a godly direction.”[9]

“Ohavei Adonai sinu ra”- what does it mean to love God, the Psalmist asks? It means to hate evil. In the final parshiot of Deuteronomy, we see many times repeated the phrase, “u-viarta ha-ra- mi-kirbekha- you should remove, you should burn out the evil from within your midst.” Evil must become intolerable to each of us as individuals and to all of us as a community.

When we say that we are created in the image of God, it does not mean that we are innately good; it means that the essence of what it is to be human is to understand the distinction between good and evil. It means that we are blessed and cursed with the ability to know right from wrong, and ennobled by the challenge to choose the right. The most important battle we must each fight is the battle with our own nature. The Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe, are the time we are held accountable for how well we are doing.

Our biggest problem in life is overcoming our natural tendency toward evil. It is not a new problem. “Surely, if you do right,” God tells Cain in the Garden of Eden, “There is uplift. But if you do not do right, sin crouches at the door; its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master.” (Genesis 4:7)

Let us use these Aseret Y’may Teshuva, these Ten Days of Repentance, to confront our own evil and acknowledge the wrong we’ve done. George Eliot wrote that “we prepare ourselves for sudden deeds by the reiterated choice of good or evil that gradually determines character.”[10] We must examine the choices we are making, and humbly atone for the wrong that we have done. We commit ourselves to the notion that there are eternal values, there is good and there is evil and we are called upon to embrace the highest moral standards. No, it is not easy. It is an immense challenge, and it is a challenge to us every single day throughout our lives. May the time we spend in the synagogue at this holiest season of the year, and the strength and support of our congregation, inspire us and give us courage to choose the right as individuals and as a community in the year ahead.





[1] Quoted in Salkin, Jeffrey, “How Can We Take the Evil Within and Make of It a Ladder That Can Uplift Us?”, Reform Judaism, Summer 1999, p. 22

[2] BT Yoma 69b

[3] Schulweis, Harold, For Those Who Can’t Believe, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994, p. 122

[4] Strongin, William, “Contemplating the Nature of Evil”, Reconstructionism Today, Vol. 6, No. 3, p. 9

[5] Salkin, op. cit., p. 21

  1. Strongin, op. cit.., p. 10

[7] Lane Olinghouse

[8] Bronte, Charlotte, Jane Eyre

[9] ibid.

[10] Eliot, George, Romola, p. 231

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1 comment

  1. faith mesnekoff

    Thanks for re-sending this.

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