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.