Nothing Personal

June 24, 2009

15 min read


Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43 )

Jacob became very frightened and it distressed him. (Genesis 32:8)

All the commentators are bothered by an obvious question. God had promised Jacob protection twice, once on leaving his father's house, and once on leaving Laban's house. Armed with such express promises of protection, why was Jacob frightened of Esau?

Rashi (ibid., 11) explains that Jacob was afraid that these promises had lapsed because of his mistakes. But there is another problem that needs to be addressed.

The question we must ask is: Doesn't God control what happens in the world?

The question we must ask is: Doesn't God control what happens in the world? Why does it follow, that once he is bereft of the shelter provided by God's express promise of Divine protection, Jacob is automatically exposed to the dread of being murdered by Esau? Surely, neither Jacob nor the members of his household had committed any great crimes. It is difficult to imagine that Jacob was afraid that his wives or his children deserved to be murdered. So why was he afraid? Does evil happen at random in the world?

In fact this question is perhaps the most difficult of all the obstacles facing the potential believer. How can he think of worshipping a God that allows the indiscriminate slaughter of his own children? Didn't Abraham himself cry out in anguish when God informed him of the imminent destruction of Sodom:

It would be sacrilege even to ascribe such an act to You -- to kill the innocent with the guilty, letting the righteous and the wicked fare alike. It would be sacrilege to ascribe this to You! Shall the whole world's judge not act justly? (Genesis 18:23)


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And yet, this apparent sacrilege is a recurring fact in the real world, where the innocent are slaughtered more often than the guilty and in much greater numbers. Moreover, the Torah itself seems to state that this is Divine policy.

Rabbi Yosef taught: "We find written, Not a single one of you may go out the door of his house till morning (Exodus 12:22). Once the Destroyer has been given permission to circulate he does not distinguish between the righteous and the wicked; even more, he begins his dirty work by destroying the righteous first." Rabbi Yosef cried at his own teaching, "Are good men of so little value that they count for nothing at all?" Abaye told him, "On the contrary, this is a benefit conferred on the righteous" [this way they don't have to witness the destruction as they are taken first] as it is written, because of the impending evil the righteous one was gathered in. (Isaiah, 57) (Talmud, Baba Kama 60a)

How can we understand this?

To answer this question we must first answer another question. Where does the evil in the world come from?

Where does the evil in the world come from?

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto in his work Derech Hashem (Sec. 1, Ch. 5) offers the following explanation. Since the creation, God is only associated with the performance of good. Even when God sits in judgment it is only for good. His punishments are never vindictive. They are never allowed to slip out of His control. Retribution is always doled out by God "measure for measure" and its purpose is invariably therapeutic. This is not evil. It may be painful at times, but it is still good.

In contrast, evil is destruction for its own sake. The purpose of its destruction is never therapeutic and it is free of the restraints of proportionality. It takes the innocent along with the wicked and destroys everything in its path. God never engages in evil.


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Nevertheless, the evil in the world was also created by God. In fact, God created this evil even before He created the world as described in Genesis 1. Without evil there are no options in the universe other than various forms of good. In such a world the possibility of free choice is non-existent. The free will power possessed by man is totally irrelevant if he has no options from which to choose. If man was to be allowed to exercise free will, the existence of evil in the world in some form was an absolute imperative.

So God created evil. Even so He did not create it as an actuality. He set it up in the form of potential energy that is capable of transforming itself into kinetic energy only if given the opportunity. God created it in this fashion because He did not want to be associated with it. In fact, He is only to be associated with the Attribute(s) of Good because it is only good that He directs. The evil was designed in such a way that it runs on automatic drive without God ever needing to associate with it at all. The system God set up operates in the following manner.

Evil is akin to darkness while good parallels light. The relationship between good and evil is congruent to the one that governs the interaction between light and darkness. This means that a little bit of light has the capacity to banish a great deal of darkness. Similarly as long as the world is filled with the light of good, the darkness of evil is totally suppressed and exists only as a potential. It is only when people take free will decisions to turn out the light of the good that the darkness of evil is able to expand.

The Torah sums up the six days of creation with the following statement:

And God saw all that He had made and behold it was very good (Genesis 1:31)


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Thus, when God handed man the world, man acquired a world full of light. The darkness was squeezed down to its smallest possible expression. Had Adam followed God's command and avoided eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the evil and the darkness in the world would have been stamped out altogether.

When man ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, he, not God, actualized the potential darkness of evil. He gave it expression in himself and in the world. He went from being totally good -- "an image of God" -- to being a mixture of good and evil.

When Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, he actualized the potential darkness of evil.

To bring this down to earth let us examine some of our own attributes -- such as the phenomenon of rage.

A person walks in to his house unexpectedly and finds his wife having relations with another man. He flies in to a jealous rage and in the heat of passion murders them both. In the criminal record of all legal jurisdictions various versions of this crime appear countless times. Most jurisdictions are inclined to leniency toward this type of murderer. In fact, the "temporary insanity" defense has been argued successfully more than once in these situations and some of these murderers have walked out of the courtroom free men.

When you ask such murderers if what they did still makes sense to them in retrospect, they will often be the first to agree that their actions were totally contrary to reason. (After all, wives are not possessions and husbands do not have the right to take a life just because their feelings were injured and they felt betrayed.) The retribution was out of all proportion to the crime. It was not reason that prompted them to commit murder, but rage -- an urge that demanded them to destroy at any cost. This urge to destroy that slips out of the control of reason is the quintessence of evil. Yet we do not recoil in horror and disgust at the news of such murderers, because, although we have never killed, most of us have struggled with the same type of rage and lost.


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How many of us can claim that we have never vented the inner rage and frustration brought on by life's many inevitable disappointments by directing wounding remarks at our spouses or children with the sole intent of hurting them as deeply as possible. Destroying someone's mood or his day is obviously not to be compared with the taking of a life, but it is also an example of engaging in destruction for its own sake. This type of behavior is also an expression of rage that has slipped free of the control of reason and, as such, it is also evil. The difference between ourselves and the murderers is a difference in degree, not a difference in kind. The evil of destructive rage is alive and well in all of us.

The tale of Romeo and Juliet is another example of evil that we are ready to condone. Frustrated by their families' reluctance to agree to their union, two young people take their lives. If my wish for romantic gratification cannot be immediately satisfied, I will destroy both the object of my desire and myself. This phenomenon is again quite widespread in our society in less extreme form. In search of the gratification provided by fresh romantic/sexual experience, seemingly responsible people regularly cause the breakup of families, inflicting irreparable psychological damage on their children, their spouses and themselves.

Once again reason rejects this sort of behavior. The satisfaction of my own romantic/sexual craving does not entitle me to destroy any one else's mental health or happiness or even my own. This is another example of evil that we are all capable of.

The greatest evil in all of us is the impulse to regard ourselves as the center of the universe.

This leads directly to the contemplation of the greatest evil that is in all of us, the evil impulse that renders all these other evils possible, our capacity to regard ourselves as the center of the universe. It is only this perception that enables us to perceive the satisfaction of our own selfish desires as being of such paramount importance that it even justifies the destruction of others. In a world run by God and created for a purpose, such an attitude is patently absurd.

These three aspects of the evil that is part of the makeup of all human beings since Adam's fall provides the background to the three cardinal sins -- idolatry, murder, and illicit sexual acts (such as rape or incest). Rather than commit any of these sins Jews are commanded to give up their lives. The extent of the surrender to the evil impulse involved in the commission of these sins turns man from a being -- who even despite his fall is still a mixture of good and evil -- into a being that is purely evil, at least for the duration of the commission the act. Reason demands that a state in which one becomes the repository of pure evil must be avoided at all costs. Life cannot be preserved at the price of engaging in destruction for its own sake.


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Jacob feared Esau because Esau was evil. He was willing to murder his brother and wipe out an entire family as retribution for the wrong that had been committed against him, according to his perception. Reason rejects such a deed as being out of all proportion to the wrong suffered. As such, it is an expression of the evil force, the destructive rage that resides within the human breast.

As the world itself is a mixture of good and evil, it allows for the expression of this type of rage. The human being who is on an ordinary spiritual level needs the protection of God to avoid it, because he himself is tinged with the same evil impulse, albeit in less extreme form.

Only the greatest tzaddikim, who have brought themselves to a state of such spiritual perfection that they are no longer a mixture of good and evil but only good, have nothing to fear from the force of evil. Evil cannot penetrate a habitat that is filled with the light of good. When evil comes into contact with such an environment, it is again reduced to pure potential and can harm no one. But in the absence of the powerful light of pure goodness, evil always has the power to harm in some degree.

In his humility, Jacob did not feel that he or his family had attained such levels of spiritual perfection. Unless they enjoyed God's protection, they were vulnerable to Esau's evil power. As Jacob feared that he was no longer entitled to the special protection provided by God's express promise, he was understandably afraid of Esau.


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When God told Abraham of the impending destruction of Sodom, He informed him that He Himself proposed to carry out this destruction through the exercise of His own Attribute of Justice. Abraham justifiably protested with great vehemence that God Himself could not possibly perpetrate the evil of indiscriminate destruction; it would be an enormous profanity of His own Holy Name to behave in the same fashion as the forces of darkness and evil.

The relationship between Jacob and Esau has exactly the same dynamics as the one between good and evil.

The relationship between Jacob and Esau has exactly the same dynamics as the relationship between good and evil. As this Talmudic analogy between the cities of Jerusalem and Caesarea, the seat of the Roman government in the Second Temple period, shows, in the end only one can survive.

Caesarea and Jerusalem -- if anyone tells you they are both in ruins, don't believe it. If anyone tells you that they are both thriving, don't believe it. But if they say that Caesarea is in ruins and Jerusalem is thriving, or that Jerusalem is in ruins while Caesarea thrives, you can believe it, as it is written, I will fill the ruins (Ezekiel 26) if this one is built, it is on the ruins of the other.

Rabbi Nachmon bar Yitzchok says this is written in the Torah: Two nations are in your womb, two regimes from your insides shall be separated; the might shall pass from one regime to another. (Genesis 25,23) (Talmud, Megilah, 6a)

Esau is the evil darkness that God set up before the emergence of Jacob into the world. He is the older twin. He is the foil against which Jacob must always test himself, the force of evil he must always overcome to survive.

Like all evil, Esau does not come directly under God's management. His might increases and decreases according to the fluctuation of the strength of the light brought into the world through the medium of Jacob's relationship with God.


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When the intensity of this light dims beyond a certain level, the evil rage of Esau spills out against Jacob and his children and goes on a rampage of wanton indiscriminate destruction that destroys the righteous along with the wicked. The result is mass destruction, a Holocaust.

All good is individualized and personal. What is good for A is often harmful to B. Wealth may be excellent for the temperate character but it leads the impulsive into overindulgence. The Attribute of Good is always necessarily precisely fine-tuned and delicate. All evil is impersonal and egalitarian. As its aim is only to destroy all in its path, it takes no interest in the fact that it is destroying A rather than B.

Israel has its share of both public and private travail. Individual problems are marks of the Attribute of Justice, an example of Divine Providence. As such, problems are therapeutic in nature and are doled out by God measure for measure.

Events of great destruction -- like the Holocaust -- are the expression of the force of evil. Only those who are saved are marked by Divine Providence. The ones who perish are destroyed by the evil.


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We, the Jewish people have inherited the duty to conduct Adam's war against evil in the form of the commandment to battle with Amalek, who is the quintessence of Esau.

For the hand is on the throne of God; the Lord maintains a war against Amalek from generation to generation. (Exodus 17:16)

The hand of Amalek reaches all the way to the throne of God. God cannot stop him without wiping out the evil in the world, and such an act would also eliminate the possibility of free choice and leave the world bereft of its purpose.

The duty to stop the evil belongs to us, not God. We must bring the evil in ourselves under the strict control of our reason, aided and guided by the commandments of the Torah. If we crush the inner darkness within our own hearts the destructive powers in the world also come under the control of reason. The light of civilization scatters the darkness of the primitive urge to destroy.

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