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The Evolution of Evil

The Evolution of Evil


“All affairs of this world are severe and evil, and wicked men prevail . . .” (Tanya, part 1, ch. 6)

No one who is even minimally acquainted with world history, and marginally aware of current events, is likely to take issue with this assertion by the chassidic master Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. Its stark accuracy underlies one of the most disturbing questions in the annals of religious thought. Why should, and how could, the world be this way? The cruelty, violence and pain that permeate earthly life present no difficulty at all for atheists, nihilists or pagans. Anyone else, however, must square such a world with a loving, merciful, just, all-wise Creator.

This most distressing and demanding challenge to religious faith is constantly nurtured by a seemingly endless progression of individual suffering and horrendous historical upheavals. It is the subject of an entire book of scripture, Job; more recently, it has been assigned its own special title, “theodicy,” reflecting its pivotal status in modern religious philosophy.

For most of us, however, this classic quandary usually assumes a somewhat more prosaic form. Why do bad things happen to good people? Where was G‑d during the Crusades, the Holocaust, the Hebron pogrom, etc.? How could G‑d allow the Black Plague to happen? How can G‑d tolerate, much less sustain, the likes of Hitler or Stalin?

There are no answers to these questions, and misguided attempts at explaining them away invariably result in embarrassed retreats, waffling, and covering oneself with obvious platitudes regarding G‑d’s inscrutability. The subject is simply beyond us, and the questions are best left alone.

Chassidic teaching, however, does not leave them alone. Since the Torah is the foundation of all of existence, its inner facet, Chassidism, has the power to reveal G‑dly purpose and grace within life’s harshest realities. There are indeed no ultimate “answers.” Chassidism, however, does not offer answers, but rather insights that recast the questions in a broader, more sophisticated context, and that reveal layers of meaning in life’s long chain of seemingly random insults.

Brilliant Darkness

The question of earthly afflictions encompasses two dimensions: 1) the source and root of suffering, and 2) the form that suffering actually assumes in mundane life.

We can acquire insight into the first of these by examining the first blessing that introduces the morning recital of the Shema. The prayer blesses G‑d “who forms light and creates darkness, who makes peace and creates all things.” The Hebrew word used here for “forms” is yotzer, and that for “creates” is borei. These two verbs allude to two specific stages, or spiritual worlds, in the chain of cause-and-effect that extends downward from the essence of divinity to culminate in the physical universe in which we live.

The verb borei refers to the world of Beriah (“creation”), whereas yotzer denotes the world of Yetzirah (“formation”). The world of Beriah is “higher” than that of Yetzirah, which is to say that it precedes Yetzirah in the sequential process of divine emanation, and is thus closer to the divine source, the or ein sof or “infinite light.” Furthermore, in the descent from Beriah to Yetzirah, the divine creative force or “light” is condensed, restricted and obscured, such that the light, or “soul,” of Yetzirah is only a dim reflection of that of Beriah.

Beriah is thus a lofty world of dazzling illumination, compared to which lowly Yetzirah is relatively nondescript. Why then, in the above blessing, is Yetzirah characterized by light, whereas Beriah is associated with darkness?

The question is best addressed through an analogy. Newly minted academics often fall into a classic trap when they first begin to teach. They are determined to deliver lectures of such brilliance, profundity and eloquence that they will merit the adulation of their students, the admiration and recognition of their department chair, and the humble awe of their older colleagues. The outcome, of course is inevitably something else. They are indeed so brilliant, profound and eloquent that nobody can understand them, and they end up talking to themselves. The lectures are too deep and too densely packed with difficult material and advanced concepts. In short, the light is too abundant and too intense. Had the lecturer spoken in Swahili or remained silent altogether, it would have been all the same to the students, since they grasped nothing in any case. Thus, although there has truly been a great revelation of light, from the students’ viewpoint there is nothing but darkness.

Similarly, the light of Beriah is so intense that it exceeds the capacities (the “vessels” in Kabbalistic-Chassidic terminology) of the lower realms to receive it, and it is therefore perceived as an absence of light—which is to say, darkness. In the transition from Beriah to Yetzirah, however, the light is reduced and veiled to the extent that it can be captured by the diminutive vessels of Yetzirah and thus recognized and appreciated as illumination.

The inference to be drawn from this is that life’s events that are rooted in the highest levels of divine beneficence necessarily transcend the capabilities of the created intellect, and are thus, most often, interpreted as an absence of good. Revealed good of a far lesser order, however, is enthusiastically embraced and mistakenly valued as the ultimate expression of divine kindness.

Light and Vessels

Consider a parent who slaps the wrist of an eight-month-old child about to insert his finger in an electric socket. The slap is a form of communication. The parent wishes to convey to the child information essential to its very life, namely that the socket is charged with electricity of sufficient voltage to kill him should he succeed in inserting his finger. The problem is that this information or “light” infinitely transcends the intellectual capacities of the child. Eight-month-old children are incapable of relating to such advanced concepts as electricity, voltage or death.

In the case of an adult, the conceptual “light”—i.e., the information that a potential deadly electric shock awaits anyone who sticks his finger in a socket—is grasped, internalized and appreciated by the intellect. This assimilation of the light within the intellective “vessels” of the mind elicits an appropriate emotional response, alarm, which in turn evokes a determination to act. The end result is that the finger is withdrawn from the source of danger, and it is to this end that the entire process was initiated.

The mind of the child, however, can not absorb the “light,” so that the communication necessary to remove him from harm must bypass his insufficient intellectual and emotional faculties and simply activate a withdrawal from the socket. Although, in this regard, the slap is most effective, the “skipped steps” result in an unbridgeable gap between the slap and the light that motivated it. Hence, despite the fact that the slap is literally a gift of life that originates in the highest level of parental love, the child experiences only the absence of light and interprets the slap as random, meaningless suffering.

These and similar analogies help us to appreciate that the afflictions which we necessarily experience as evil and harsh are, in fact, rooted in the most sublime level of divine wisdom and love.

However, while this line of inquiry sheds some light on the origin of earthly anguish, it does not address the enormous disparity between the lofty G‑dly source of suffering and the dreadful, appalling forms that it assumes in this world. In the analogy above, for example, it is the parent him- or herself who administers the slap to the child. Despite the inexplicable suffering, the child knows intuitively that the slap, delivered by his loving parent, does not express alienation or hostility; indeed, the parent comforts the child and wipes away the tears. In our case, however, it is nigh-on impossible to discern the hand of our loving Father in the strikes that we receive through the agency of such vile, satanic creatures as Stalin, Hitler, etc. The forces and circumstances that afflict us seem to have a life of their own.

Chessed and Gevurah

The source of all mundane tribulations is the divine attribute of gevurah.

Gevurah, translated as strength, justice or severity, is one of the ten sefirot (attributes or faculties) through which the Almighty interacts with creation. As a particular expression of G‑dliness, gevurah represents perfect goodness just as do the other sefirot such as wisdom, kindness and mercy. Contrary to our intuition, gevurah is as much an expression of G‑d’s love as is chessed (“kindness”). Indeed, it is gevurah that complements and perfects chessed.

However, as manifestations of gevurah extend downward through successively lower levels of creation, they assume the properties of the worlds through which they descend, and thus become progressively distorted and coarsened. Ultimately, the influence of the divine attribute of gevurah is invested within, and gives rise to, what the Kabbalists call gevurot kashot—“harsh severities”—a medium in which divinity is concealed so deeply as to be completely unrecognizable. The cruel evils of this world, therefore, seem totally detached from any vestige of G‑dly purpose, and they appear to exist and to function independently.

This apparent dissociation of worldly afflictions from their supernal source can be appreciated, to some extent, by means of an analogy. Consider a rabbinic court of wise and compassionate judges before whom stands an individual guilty of some heinous offense. The judges understand that in order to rectify the sin and to restore the spiritual integrity of the sinner’s soul, lashes are required.

The judges abhor inflicting pain on anyone. Moreover, being extremely wise and learned, they could undoubtedly find a technicality on which to base an acquittal, thus saving the sinner from physical punishment and themselves from the anguish of causing physical suffering to another human. The judges realize, however, that a man’s spiritual life is at stake, and their love and compassion motivate them to disregard their own feelings and to save the sinning soul before them by ordering lashes.

Thus far there is only love, compassion and understanding. It is not, however, the judges, but rather a court-appointed official who carries out the sentence. This official was not privy to the judges’ deliberations, and he knows nothing of the love, compassion and understanding which is the source and cause of the punishment. His job is to administer lashes, and he is only interested in the technical performance of his job. At this stage of the procedure, the judges are no longer a reality. The power and authority to dispense lashes, once the process has been initiated, falls to the official, who neither knows nor cares why he has been ordered to lash this particular individual.

In truth, the love and wisdom of the judges underlies the entire exercise. However, the traits that qualify men as judges render them uniquely unsuitable to administer lashes. Indeed, for the lashes to be effective and to thus achieve the desired result, namely the cleansing of a soul, they must be given by someone unimpeded by the refined sensibilities and the empathetic nature required to be a judge. Thus the ideal deputy through whom judges’ prescription can be implemented is someone very different from the judges themselves.

Similarly, the divine attribute of gevurah, which is a particular manifestation of G‑d’s love and concern, of necessity appears removed from the very afflictions that it engenders. Were the hand of G‑d perceivable in each of our travails, the authenticity of the ordeal would dissipate and our free will would be compromised, thus precluding the fierce inner struggle required for our intended spiritual rectification and growth. In short, there could be no transforming spiritual crisis, and subsequently, no redemptive possibilities within the experience.

Thus, the earthly agents of suffering serve the crucial purpose of concealing the divine compassion at the core of the tribulations. In reality, however, they are nothing more than instruments of divine will, and they have no independent authority or autonomous existence.

Body and Soul

This is all very fine. There remains, however, one serious problem. In the analogies presented above, the subjects survive and benefit from their suffering. The child, saved from electrocution, can now safely grow up to lead a productive life. The erstwhile transgressor, relieved of the burden of sin, is transformed into an upstanding, valuable member of society.

But what about those who do not survive the cure? How can Jews killed by Hitler, Arafat or the Black Plague possibly profit from the experience?

The answer is quite simple: The premise on which the question is based is incorrect. No Jews died, nor ever will die. The G‑dly soul, which is the reality of a Jew, is immortal. Only the soul’s body, which is to say, the Jew’s circumstances, are subject to change.

The soul is capable of existing on a myriad of levels (this world, the Lower Garden of Eden, the Higher Garden of Eden, etc.). However, the soul itself, as an extension of pure G‑dliness, is eternal and immutable. As far as the soul is concerned, the changing circumstances signify progressively loftier manifestations of its own essence.

Furthermore, a Jew’s departure from this world is only temporary. The culmination of the soul’s quest for ultimate self-realization is techiyat ha-meitim, the resurrection of the dead. Thus “death” is simply one of the many varieties of ephemeral earthly afflictions that a soul experiences in order to achieve elevation, perfection and ultimate joy.

This is already abundantly apparent to those Jews who are, at present, unencumbered by a body. Although those of us currently residing in the physical world may have to wrestle with the problem of earthly suffering, souls see that no evil descends from on high. May the time soon arrive when this great truth is self-evident.

See also The Rebbe on the Holocaust for a discussion of the divine role in human suffering.

Dr. Yaakov Brawer is Professor Emeritus of the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University. He is the author of two books of Chassidic philosophy, Something From Nothing and Eyes That See
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Steve E Abraham New York June 30, 2016

Why can't we understand god? God can create or give us more understanding. The only reason we cannot understand god is because did not give us the capability. But that does not mean that we are ultimately not capable! For god could certainly create us with this ability, and saying no to this would limit god's ability, which is ridiculous! The point is, saying "we don't understand god's ways" is really a criticism of god, for, if god did give us this ability, evil and horror would not exist as it does. With an understanding of god, who would commit an evil act? Even gentiles, if they had an understanding of god's ways, they would all convert immediately and there would be peace! I, myself, would gladly give up free will to have peace, more so if I knew for sure what god meant. Reply

Primo Levi June 4, 2016

As Jew we are here to be the example others learn from. What is often overlooked is there are two types of examples; good and bad.
A person's behavior can be an example to be followed or avoided both are equally useful. G_d can use Jews as either example and the blessings/curses demonstrate this.
The blessings of those who follow G_d will become a positive example. an outcome to be achieved. The suffering of those cursed will become the negative example, an outcome to be avoided.
"Evil" will not be destroyed because it has a fundamental purpose.
We cannot see or understand G_d. No one can study, write down, or define G_d.
But, we can understand the absence of G_d. We can understand what G_d is not.
The closest we can come to defining G_d is to know what G_d isn't.
Evil is the sign which points to G_d.
Evil is the "Wrong way" sign on the road. It is easier to demonstrate you are going the wrong direction than prove the correct direction is.
Evil points to G_d. Reply

Anonymous NY, NY via September 17, 2014

When it came to the holy destruction of evil, G-d said as long as there are 36 righteous people He will save the world. Even when G-d poses an edict, there are reflective consequences. There's also a balance of 36 evil people. The Bible discusses the conflicts of good and evil. The perspectives of what is good and what is evil is only in the eyes and mind of the beholder. It is neither darkness nor light. It is a struggle at who conquers the other for how long, when, how, and why. In faith and reason, neither may be good nor evil. It's sickness, it's greed, and it's a little of everything else. Fortunately, more people generally follow for good survival. Evil has its followers but transitions are fast as technology can control. Reply

suzy hander woodland hills, ca September 11, 2014

I have always wondered. Does G-d like evil or the idea of evil? I'm so confused why there is so much suffering in the Torah. I study the Torah daily and read commentaries and Midrash. Can you suggest any Midrash passages or commentaries about the evolution of evil that relates to Torah tragedy? Reply

ken sheck B.C. Canada September 10, 2014

Hello. There is none good, no not one, except G_d. So, the idea that bad things happen to good people is not really true at all. Except, we know that what is meant as good people means some people who are very kind and nice and so on most of the time, but not all of the time. Therefore, there is none good. One part of the answer to the question why is that natural man is naturally that which the scripture calls the "wrath of G_d." Mankind is not finished being "created" yet and it is all the unfinished or immature parts of mankind that still need to be cut away like clay that cause us all to do all and any of the evils we do. Problem is many things that are really not good are done by man thinking they are good.
Man is the "tree" or source of the experience and doing of both good and evil, producing both good and evil fruit {results} from one physical entity, man.
Today is the day of answers because we are close to completion as God's true image within. G-d is Spirit. Reply

Anonymous September 9, 2014

I really like all these ideas, not because I have fully understood them but because I know that if I internalize them I will be stronger to overcome suffering. I have got something from their reading. I think that some others like me get tempted to buy the additional readings, in this case the books published but there are many trade hurdles to overcome in order to get them. My suggestion is it would be easier to get them if they were offered in e-book form. Thank you. Reply

Steve E Abraham New York September 9, 2014

Some say, the existence of evil allows us to have a choice, to have free will. My question is, would we be willing to give up "free will" in order to end evil? Would we be willing to say, "I am ok without free will" and have something like the holocaust never happen? What if... everyone was the same, if Hashem chose everyone, not just one people or nation. There is no free will, there is no evil, and there is no suffering. I would certainly give up free will, so that I could have met and spent time with my grandparents, rather than hear stories of how they were gassed and burnt in Germany. We do not need evil, and why do we need to accept a God who allows evil to exist? Why do we have to make excuses for God that He created evil? Hashem, God, created evil, didn't He? If we have free choice, I would choose no evil to exist. That would be paradise, or heaven, or olem habah here on Earth. Reply

Anonymous Nebraska September 9, 2014

Regarding why bad things happen to good people I have found in my turning to genealogy in hopes of discovering who in the family was to blame for all the dysfunction I only found out it was G-d. In tracing some family lines down to the 1500's I learned much about the history at the time of immigration of many family members, the wars that took place, etc. What I discovered was a pattern, the movements of G-d upon the earth through the ages in my various family lines. I can't remember the scripture right now, exactly how it is worded, but my research all came down to "a man may plan his way but it is G-d who directs his steps." All I saw was the plans my family made and choices they made but in the end they ended up where G-d wanted them. I am only here because of Hitler and WWII otherwise my father never would have met my mother. In reviewing my own life I see how I ended up with jobs, friends and such all to prepare me for my being able to do some good in the world right now. Reply

SKM September 8, 2014

Thank you for this teaching it is awesome. Torah teaching like this redeems souls. If we had never suffered, then we would never have known the depth of truth you have written about, we would never have found the Torah that lies hidden in the pain and anguish of our souls. Reply

Anonymous September 8, 2014

This is written so well. Reply

milca September 8, 2014

Human beings have been given the free will. Evil or good are not from God, but from us. That is our own responsibility and our daily fight to help make this world a better place and not give up into sadness and anger. God doesn't owe us anything, he can help, or not, but there is no way to predict it. That is why "fairness" does not exist, weak and sick people can raise to power, wise and good heart ones can be brought down. That is our fault, not God's will. Hopefully one day, God will return in his temple and bring back peace and spiritual beauty to earth. Until then, we are on our own. Reply

Isaac Hager MIAMI, f September 4, 2012

Evil exists because people choose to practice it. Why does G-d allow because it did not work before when man was sitting in Paradise. As what you are saying a Jew can never be killed that is not true. Death in this world is suffering for the living and for the dead. The fact that the soul reaches new heights does not mitigate the suffering of the living for most people. Reply

Anonymous Bklyn, NY August 29, 2012

The author begins the article by stating that the suffering of the innocent, events like the Holocaust, and the Plague, are beyond human comprehension then he proceeds to explain such events through Chasidus. Although the author's line of reasoning is based on widely accepted tradional Jewish sources, somehow, the question remains and the human soul, sensitive and compassionate feels deep dissatisfaction with these explanations for the very same reason given as the explanation - the soul is Divine and it is disgusted with injustice and cruelty. The Bible tells us that G-d is also outraged with cruelty and oppression. So it makes sense. Reply

LRoche NY August 29, 2012

It all boils down to the fundamental changes of Laws. Avram lived by the Laws of Nature of which Cause and Effect are crucial elements of which each in the universe is aware. Along comes Moshe and the laws are changed into 5 dos and 5 donts doing away with the Laws of Nature. THAT is the cause of all suffering. The arrogance of ignorance to claim to know while we know not. Ancient people lived by very different laws. All Religious Laws are corrupt and pervert in relation to the Ancient Laws of Nature and hence the suffering. Genesis 1I tells clearly that our diet is vegetarian...have a horrific look how religions treat animals and slaughter. The ancient folks made anestetic substances before killing the animal. Compare with the human behaviour today. Religions are not philosophies, they are ruthless ideologies of power with total disregard for life on earth/ the univers. As such by the Laws of Cause and Effect there will be self-destruction if not changed. Bless Reply

Kweli December 3, 2011

The question arises, how does God allow or let bad things happen? God allows, man lets. God's greatest gift is life followed by free will, the tie-in is this. Most of the ills of this world are of our own making, God did not whisper in Hilter's ear or cause any wars; man does these things of his own voilition, the problem or what we fail to understand is God does not abridge our choices good or bad. We need to stop blaming God for our misguided choices, we are the cause of most of this world's ills. God allows our choices to manifest in the world of transformation, man lets i.e., creates them to manifest his own greatness. Grasp this well, some of us in this world are the vessels; note the greedy, foolish and their croonies who claim everything they do is for the benefit of mankind, yet only the wealth of the rich and their grows, until we choose to change this evil will appear to continue to prevail. God is never at fault we always are!!! Reply

Bonnie September 18, 2011

I do not understand this divine decree for 'inflicting' evil on people. Or that it is the L-rd's will that it be so.
The L-rd KNEW every single action of yours and mine BEFORE we were created. He knew who would repent and who would not.
Then, amazing to me, He went ahead and created us. So because Someone knows, is not the same as a Decree.
Therefore all things will/are brought into account. Reply

Anonymous New York, NY September 16, 2011

It all boils down to the apparent paradox between free will and Divine providence. If G'd has issued a negative decree and someone fullfills it, that person is held accountable to her actions. By as hard as it is to grasp this (it is beyond our understanding), that is a fact.
There was a Divine decree to our people that we would be slaves in a strange land. The egyptians took it, but any other nation could've taken it. Because they took it, they suffered for their decision. Likewise the holocaust was a decree from upwards. Saying Hitler 'won' over G'd is placing him above. We can't understand such decree, and saying it was necessary and that we understand it is an offence to the victims. But at the same time, even if it was a Divine decree, Hitler is accountable for his crimes because he acted voluntarily. The decree was unbeknownst to him. The logic is that every single fact happens on accordance to G'd's will Reply

Catherine New York, NY September 14, 2011

The Sefirot are a good way of explaining why G-d allows people to suffer. Indeed it is the deeds of humans that affect how G-d will constrict light. When the world is as coarse as it is now and they choose to minimize G-d in their lives, then reality here on earth changes, hurricanes, sickness, depresion, suicide etc. In light of the commandments that G-d gave us, He still expects us to know them and follow them. When we don't, the constriction of light, (grace, goodness) is very apparent, ie.suffering. Just look at the world now and the words in this week's Parshah. It speaks for itself. Reply

Anonymous anywhere, earth July 14, 2011

I think you have the right of it. There is an ongoing war.It is real and tangible. It is always going on between light and dark, good and evil.

There is no escaping this war. Mankind has brought it upon himself and the light must win over the darkness.

Like they say; sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you.
But the L-rd will prevail in all that He does for mankind. Reply

Avraham St. Paul, MN July 13, 2011

John Smith. If you are referring to Prof. Brawer, I must inform you that he is born in America.

Ariel. I believe what Prof. Brawer intended is that G-d's "tool" does not even KNOW, let alone care, that he is G-d's tool. In the words of the masters: "Aino nirgash bo"

Anon from CT. I believe you are misunderstanding the intent. The idea is not that the ends justify the means, but that the means themselves come from, and therefore are, good. As humans we are not capable of perceiving this. Although that may not be comforting, (I know I don't find it that way), it is the truth. HOWEVER, this does not trivialize the Holocaust or any tragedy in any way. They are still evil in our perception and therefore we must continue to battle with it, because we are put in this world to work with THIS world regardless of it's source. G-d puts us here to work on this world to improve it AS WE SEE IT. This is what mitzvos are for. For more reading on this topic, I recommend Reply