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Fight Evil or Do Good?

Fight Evil or Do Good?


I recently stumbled upon an article titled: "Seven Tips for Fighting Fairly in Marriage."

It opened by saying that, "Fighting fairly is one of the most important skills you can learn in order to keep your marriage healthy and strong…"

I hear the logic. If you're going to end up fighting anyways, why not learn to fight fairly?

At the risk of sounding youthful and newly married (which I am), I believe the premise is faulty. Not based on my own limited experience and knowledge of marriage, but based on the very first model of matrimony—between G‑d and His people, who have lovingly celebrated together thousands of anniversaries.1

The Great Debate

Life can be categorized as one long struggle. The particulars of the battle are unique to each individual, but the concept of fighting is not. The common enemy we share is the "evil inclination." It comes in various colors, shapes, and sizes, but ultimately it wants the same thing from us all. It wants our undivided attention, it wants to employ all our energies in the pursuit of selfish desires.

At the crux of the struggle is the fight for total control over the reservoir of love we each possessOn the flipside, we each possess a G‑dly, or goodly, inclination whose agenda is the exact opposite. It wants to corral all our resources and talents in the interest of developing a relationship with G‑d helping our fellows.

At the crux of the struggle, however, is the fight for total control over the reservoir of love we each possess—the human capacity to love unconditionally. The love which in its natural form is directed towards G‑d.

If there is one thing that generates the life-long tug-of-war we experience, it is the struggle for ownership of that love. Will that love remain directed towards G‑d, or will it, G‑d forbid, be re-channeled towards oneself and lead to an egocentric and hedonistic lifestyle?

But how is this war best fought? How does one outwit the enemy? How is the side of good to maintain ownership over this fountain of love?

And what of someone who awakens one day to the realization that he's allowed his evil inclination to assume control, and now wishes to reclaim the love for his G‑dly soul? How does one shake off a well-entrenched enemy?

This was the subject of debate between two eighteenth century great Chasidic masters: the founder of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, and his contemporary, Rabbi Aryeh Leib of Shpole (affectionately known as the "Shpoler Zeide").

Defense or Offense?

There are two components to every war: defense and offense. Both are necessary in order to win—but which is more necessary? Where should the emphasis be?

The Zeide insisted that the way to eliminate the voice of evil is by terminating any relationship with it. Only after expelling any and every impious thought, word, and deed, could one devote time and energy to the performance of good.

In sports terms, he advocated a "good D." Only after securing your own goalposts could you think of scoring touchdowns.

He quoted King David: "Turn from evil and [only then] do good."2

A simple analogy accompanied his scriptural proof: Does it make sense to bring ornate furniture into a home before cleaning it first? What's the point of beautiful furnishings if they sit in filth?

Night is banished through the process of illumination, not eliminationRabbi Schneur Zalman disagreed. "One who wrestles with a dirty opponent becomes dirty himself," he taught.3 (Most political campaign can attest to this.) That's how it is with dirt: it schleps you down with it.

Try terminating a bad thought, and you'll only get more stuck in it. But if you actively exchange the thought for another "track," it will cease to exist. Not because you've won it over, but because you moved on to something better.

The famed Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk put it this way: "I don't expect my chassidim not to sin. I expect them not to have time to sin."

Moreover, a person constantly involved with good eventually reaches the point where he ceases to sin not only due to a lack of time, but due to a lack of interest; not just in practice, but in principle.4

Our sages put it so eloquently when they said that the way to dispel darkness is by adding light. Night is banished through the process of illumination, not elimination.

Back to sports: Rabbi Schneur Zalman was clearly offensively minded.

A Study in Love

To solidify his case, Rabbi Schneur Zalman looked to the Talmud—through the lens of mystical interpretation.

There he found a Mishnah5 that demonstrated that his argument with the Zeide was an old one. In this Mishnah the Sages discuss the appropriate song for a wedding celebration:

"How does one dance before the bride? Shammai said: 'The bride as she is.'"

Praise her according to the qualities she possesses, Shammai contended, but not more than that.

Hillel disagreed, regardless of the qualities the bride possesses, we sing: "A beautiful and graceful bride!"

Aside for the literal issue being discussed, the Mishnah is alluding to a deeper question: In the context of the marriage between G‑d and His people, how does one endear the bride to her Groom? How does one reveal and properly channel the gift of pure love that G‑d gave us, in order to evoke a reciprocal love on His part?

Shammai says: "The bride as she is." Only when she is flawless, can she love and be loved.

The bride was not ready to join her Beloved. Her love had been hijacked by Egyptian forcesHillel argues: "She is a kind and beautiful bride." She doesn't need to wait until she's perfect to love and be loved. Her beauty can transcend her imperfections, if she takes her love to the next level, by adding in charm and grace.

By adding in the realm of good, the bad matters less, if at all. And when one lives a life consumed with goodness, he eventually ascends to a plane where bad ceases to exist altogether.6

But what is the source for Hillel's radical idea?

The Wayward Bride

The Israelites were far from pretty when Moses was sent to redeem them. In fact they were deeply steeped in the ugliness of Egypt. They had fallen so low, say the kabbalists,7 that one more moment in that evil environment and they would have been finished forever.

The bride was far from ready to join her Beloved beneath the wedding canopy. Her love had been compromised; hijacked by Egyptian forces.

Upon being notified by Moses that G‑d, her fiancé, was on His way to redeem and marry her, she desperately needed to shape up in preparation.

Short on time and energy, however, she found herself at a crossroads: To break up with her new love, or to rekindle the sparks of old? To forget or to remember?

Hot and Cold

An esoteric reading of the plagues brought upon Egypt produces the answer to the Israelites' question. For these were not only ten phases of destruction for Pharaoh and his people; on a deeper level, they represented a ten-step rehabilitation program for the Jews.

Of the ten, we will discuss the first two: Blood and Frogs. Both of them centered on the Nile, a body of water that embodied the root of the Israelites' sacrilegious sentiment. Since little to no rain fell in Egypt, the Nile was the source of nourishment in that region. Thus, instead of turning heavenward for sustenance, in the absence of rain they looked earthward.8

The Nile represented the worship of nature, as opposed to the worship of G‑d. (Accordingly, Pharaoh's decree to drown Jewish children in the Nile was also his desire to see the Jewish future immersed in Egypt's culture of heresy.)

Back to the first plague:

Water is cold and represents apathy; blood is warm and symbolizes passion. Passion and apathy can be good or bad, depending on where they are directed.

"I am now going to strike the water… and it will turn into blood," said G‑d.9 The cool waters of the Nile would become waves of warm, churning blood.

Don't worry about your lingering attraction to the pyramids; fire yourself up for the mountains of SinaiThe first step to recovery, G‑d was saying, is to transform indifference, embodied by the Nile, into enthusiasm for all things holy. The first move one must make when held captive by Pharaoh is to create a desire for freedom. Don't worry about your lingering attraction to the pyramids. That's not your first priority. Fire yourself up for the mountains of Sinai, and the other fires will soon die on their own.

Step two is Frogs.

"The river will swarm with frogs, and when they emerge they will go into your palace and bedroom and on your bed and into your ovens and kneading bowls…"10

Once the Jew has decided to leave Egypt it is time for Egypt to leave the Jew.

The time had come to let the cold amphibians loose. Wherever they hopped, a stream of cold droplets packed with sarcasm and cynicism was released—directed at the fires of Egypt.

Wherever passion for Egyptian culture had loitered, "in the palace [materialism], the bedroom [loose morals], in the ovens and in the kneading bowls [cuisine]," coldness now reigned. The fires of Egypt had been put out.

At long last the bride was ready to be swept into the arms of her Beloved. Finally, our ancestors were ready to love and be loved.

What's in It for Me?

If you're bogged down by negativity, surround yourself with goodness and kindness. The first step out, is up.

Do you become Superman when you fly, or do you fly when you become Superman?

The path to G‑d is through doing good, not just not-bad. The way to spiritually advance is to redirect your spirit, not kill it. Begin your journey by creating new fires, not destroying old ones.

Back to Fair Fighting

A good marriage doesn't take place in a boxing ring; no matter how fair the fightA good marriage doesn't take place in a boxing ring; no matter how fair the fight. Because the glue that holds spouses together isn't the pursuit of focusing upon and fixing faults (and especially not the other's).

Strengthen the good, and the bad will matter less.

Eventually it will pale into oblivion, or you might just be blinded by love.

Same difference.

The following was adapted from a chasidic discourse by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Keitzad Mirakdin, printed in Likutei Torah.

Tanya, ch. 28.


A well-known Jewish educator points to the following incident in his youth that deeply impacted him: Once, after doing something wrong, his father summoned him. Apprehensive about his father's reaction, he nevertheless entered his father's study. The three Yiddish words his father gently told him have remained with him since: "Es past nisht." Loosely translated that means: "You're better than that." Instead of focusing on the bad, he lifted his child to a higher place where bad simply didn't exist.


Ketubot 16b.


It is known that until Moshiach comes, we follow the rulings of the school of Hillel. It therefore stands to say that the same is true regarding the mystical interpretation, in which case the "law" in this matter remains like Rabbi Schneur Zalman. The Rebbe's philosophy was (understandably) identical to that of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, his predecessor. A young man who had recently returned to Jewish observance once asked the Rebbe for a path of penitence. The Rebbe told him, "To begin with, don't focus on your past; concern yourself, rather, with serving G‑d through joy. And you'll take care of the past at a different time."


See Zohar Parshat Yitro.


See Likutei Sichot, vol. 6 pg. 30.


Ibid. verse 28.

Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson is the rabbi of Beit Baruch and executive director of Chabad of Belgravia, London, where he lives with his wife, Chana, and children.
Mendel was an editor at the Judaism Website—, and is also the author of the popular books Seeds of Wisdom and A Time to Heal.
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Yossi Idyllwild, CA January 11, 2018

Fantastic article, and applicable to every sort of conflict whether within marriage or within ourselves. Thank you for this perspective. Reply

Anonymous Canada January 9, 2018

I'm reading every word and soaking it up like a sponge. You have lifted my heart and enlightened my spirit.

Thank you. Reply

faygie Miami Beach January 10, 2013

as someone married over 30 years, your article hits the nail on the head. when you learn from the right source all is well with the world... Reply

elisheba bridgebuilder ocala, fl/usa August 15, 2011

translating Now to put all these inspiring thoughts into practice.....dealing with unfairness at work or what to say when people around you begin slandering or mocking those not present...a great challenge...maybe that's good so we won't have time to complain or sin. Reply

Rachel Garber Phila, PA USA January 19, 2010

G-d kicking our butts? I'm disappointed that Marj seems to think that G-d has spent most of the time kicking our butts. This is like asking where was G-d during the Holocaust. The issue is not G-d kicking our butts, or "letting this happen" but rather, where is the rest of humanity. Why are there only approximately 11,000 names inscribed in Yad v'Shem as Righteous Among Nations? Where is G-d during the earthquake in Haiti, where is G-d in the tsunami a couple of yrs ago? Where was G-d during the Civil Rights era when Black people were being clubbed and hosed by police? He is in the planes of people who are flying relief to the people today, in the outpouring of help after the tsunami, he is in the people who went to Selma and other Southern states to support the quest for Civil Rights. Many of our people have been part of those efforts to bring aid, comfort, and support. Has G-d admonished us, of course. Wives nag husbands to get a check up, husbands admonish wives to give up smoking. Reply

Traci boca raton, fl January 19, 2010

your article I liked your article very much.
It is a very uplifting and inspiring article.
I believe you have written some very good advice. Reply

marj January 15, 2010

fair fighting you must have not read the scriptures lately.
how can you say G-d and his people have celebrated thousands of loving anniversaries when most of the time He has spent kicking our butts and admonishing His bride for her infidelities. Reply

Anonymous Toronto January 15, 2010

Thank You for your inspiring words! Reply

Rachel Garber Phila, PA USA January 14, 2010

What is meant by fighting fairly I understand the logic of what the article says, but that is not what the concept of fighting fairly means. What it means is simply this, no personal attacks, in other word is the argument really about not taking out the trash, or is it an opportunity to tell your spouse what a rotten person you really think he or she is. Don't keep dredging up old issues, if you are arguing about taking out the trash, or putting the dishes in the dishwasher after eating, don't bring up every old gripe you have had with each other over the past months or the past ten years. If your parents don't like your spouse, don't take every opportunity to remind him or her that, "my parents were right, I shouldn't have married you" There will be fights, no, not the Mike Tyson punching bag type, but no couple can escape arguments. However, the argument should be about the issues, not personality, or old "hurts" or things ones parents said about your spouse Reply

Jerome DFW TEXAS via January 12, 2018
in response to Rachel Garber:

Fighting fairly What you are saying is so true as I have been through this many times because all the incidental attack’s not Germaine to the argument at hand will never be resolved and only make it harder to solve the issue at hand. Plus drags up old pain for both parties. A pure negative. Reply

Anonymous Jerusalem, Israel January 12, 2010

Thanks for a wonderful article!
I appreciated the different sources used to bring out this powerful point. Reply

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