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The Fragile Veneer of Evil

The Fragile Veneer of Evil

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And Abraham arose early in the morning, and he saddled his donkey (Genesis 22:3)

And Balaam got up in the morning, and he saddled his donkey (Numbers 22:21)

Imagine two exquisite vases on a shelf. From where you stand, they are identical. Both exude solidity of substance and excellence of craftsmanship. The delicate figures and motifs etched on their surfaces convey beauty and wisdom.

You step forward for a closer look. Even under close scrutiny, you see nothing to mar their symmetry of perfection. Each remains the other’s absolute equal in strength, function and attractiveness.

You pick up one of the vases. You tap it, gingerly at first, then with confidence . . . You pick up one of the vases. You tap it, gingerly at first, then with confidence. Your fingers trace its contours. Your hands confirm your eyes’ appraisal of its heft, durability and quality.

You reach for the other vase. At the merest touch of a fingertip, it shatters to bits.


Balaam, the prophet and sorcerer summoned by the king of Moab to curse the Children of Israel,1 is one of the most fascinating and paradoxical characters in the Torah. On the one hand, Balaam is declared to be nothing less than the equal of Abraham (in passion)2 and of Moses (in prophecy).3 On the other hand, he is described as the most perverse, greedy and corrupt human being ever to walk the face of the earth.4

He was the equal of Abraham in passion and Moses in prophecy . . . Yet he was the most corrupt human being ever to walk the face of the earth Indeed, such is the paradox of evil. The purpose of evil is to provide us with choice. Choice is crucial to Torah: without free choice between good and evil, the very idea of morality (i.e., that we are accountable for our actions), the very concept of a mitzvah (a divine commandment to man to act a certain way), and the very notion of purpose and meaning to human life, would be nonsensical.5 And for a choice to be truly a choice, it must be an equal choice. Hence the principle that “this opposite the other, G‑d made”6—that the sitra achara (“other side”) of evil was construed to be as powerful, as attractive, as compelling as the side of good.

On the other hand, equally crucial to the Torah’s view of reality is the principle that G‑d is the essence of good, and all that derives from G‑d is good;7 and that since “there is nothing else besides Him,”8 there is nothing in existence that is not pure, unadulterated goodness.

The absolute certitude that good will triumph . . . To be a Jew is to walk through life with two pieces of knowledge lodged in one’s mind. The knowledge that we must fight evil with every fiber of our being, because the challenge that evil throws up against us requires the power of every fiber of our being to defeat it. And the knowledge, with absolute certitude, that we will win the fight, that good will triumph.

For such is the paradox of evil. The face it presents to us is as powerful, as beautiful, as compelling, as the best we’ve got. But in essence it is nothing: an illusion that dissipates to nothingness at the merest touch of the core of goodness within us.

Footnotes
1.
As related in the Torah reading of Balak, Numbers 22:2–25:9.
2.
The Midrash, comparing the two verses cited at the beginning of this article, makes note of the fact that “love causes a person to extraordinary things.” Abraham and Balaam were both wealthy men, and had many servants to saddle their donkeys for them. Yet Abraham, in his passion to do G‑d’s will (in the “Binding of Isaac”), arose early in the morning and saddled his donkey himself, as Balaam did, in his converse passion of hate, to go curse Israel. (Bereishit Rabbah 55:8; Rashi on Numbers 22:21. See also Ethics of the Fathers 5:19.)
It is regarding G‑d’s “test” of Abraham in the Binding of Isaac that the Midrash offers the metaphor: “A potter does not examine defective vessels, because a single blow would break them. What then does he examine? Only the sound vessels, for he will not break them even with many blows. Similarly, G‑d tests not the wicked but the righteous.”
3.
Citing the verse, “And there arose not a prophet in Israel such as Moses” (Deuteronomy 34:10), the Midrash deduces: “In Israel there arose not [a prophet like Moses], but amongst the nations of the world there did arise. And who is that? Balaam the son of Beor” (Bamidbar Rabbah 14:19; Yalkut Shimoni 966). The chassidic masters also point out that the Torah uses the word vayikar (“and He happened upon”) to describe G‑d’s communications with Balaam, and the word vayikra (“and He called”) to describe Moses’ prophecy, the two Hebrew words being identical except for the letter alef at the end of vayikra—an alef which is written in the Torah in miniature size, further emphasizing the two words’ similarity. (But that tiny alef, connoting Moses’ humility in contrast to Balaam’s egotism, also represents the huge difference between them, changing the meaning of the two words to diametric opposites—a cold and casual encounter with Balaam, and a loving, intimate calling to Moses.)
4.
Talmud, Sanhedrin 105a–b; Ethics of the Fathers 5:19.
5.
Mishneh Torah, Laws of Teshuvah, ch. 5.
7.
“And G‑d saw all that He made, and behold, it is very good” (Genesis 1:31); “From the Supernal One cannot emerge both evil and good” (Lamentations 3:38).
By Yanki Tauber; based on the teachings of the Rebbe.
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ruth housman marshfield hills, ma July 6, 2011

the paradox within The word EVIL backwards, in English is LIVE. And yes, to examine life as it is lived, is to see multiple examples of man's inhumanity. I do not want to open the morning's newspapers to see this. We all want a paper that is about the LIGHT, a section about goodness, and humor, not about these cruel ongoing parts of life.

What is choice? What if, we are gifted the illusion of choice and what if, as we say, G_d knows everything we're going to do, because there is one Author and one true Authority for our days on earth. As it is said, those days are truly, numbered, and when we ask for another year on Yom Kippur we're talking about a book, A Book of Life, and G_d is signatory to that book.

So even, choice, can be viewed as an illusion and we all really must live with this paradox, as in knowing that opposites fold together, and that we are ONE. Surely on a molecular basis we flow ito each other, but have the total feeling of boundaries. Reply

Richard Raff BonneyLake, United States July 6, 2009

Thank You I am glad I even get to have choices Reply

JIM & POK WEST DALE CITY, VA/USA November 23, 2005

Choice All choices are free choices. There are no other type. When one chooses whatever one chooses one does so regarding or regardless of the outcome/consequences. Even when it is known what the immediated outcome may be one still makes the choice. When one says that I did not choose, one has indeed chosen not to choose between given alternatives.... Reply

Anonymous July 14, 2005

To Mr Mind try the following links:
www.chabad.org/k1230
www.chabad.org/3051 Reply

mind and choice July 14, 2005

Choice - an orphen of freedom of choice? "And for a choice to be truly a choice, it must be an equal choice."

Please, elaborate more on that choice! And how we make free choice and how do we know it is a free choice without any precondition, since we are also limited in our boundaries of mindset and physical strength. Are there really possibilities of such thing as - free choice? Reply

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