Our Capacity for Evil, Our Capacity for Good

Va'et-hannan By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jul 27, 1996 / 5756 | Torah Commentary | Philosophy

On the first anniversary of the bomb blast which erased 168 lives in the Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, the New York Times ran a photograph on the front page of Jannie Coverdale, who had lost two grandsons. She posed between their twin beds, each covered with stuffed animals, holding a portrait picture of each boy toward the camera. Beneath the photograph, the Times quoted her as saying: “A year ago this week, Satan drove up Fifth Street in a Ryder truck. He blew my babies up. He may have looked like a normal man, but he was Satan.”

These anguished words have seared themselves into my memory. No theologian can better their graphic depiction of radical evil. Though committed by people, it comes from elsewhere. We are strongly comforted by the simplicity of a conception of the world in which the armies of God and Satan contend, reducing us to terrified bystanders. The horror of evil drives us to embrace a sense of orderliness that renders humanity helpless and God diminished.

When Susan Smith in South Carolina sent her two small boys to their watery death strapped into the child safety seats inside her Mazda, her minister, Rev. Mark Long, speculated that she was witness to two presentations that night: “God made her a presentation and Satan made her a beautiful presentation.” After weighing them in her distraught mind, she opted for Satan’s.

In moments of numbness, I envy the clarity and conviction of these statements. The explicit dualism seems able to account for the ubiquity of evil, that tragic aspect of human experience which defies comprehension as in the words of the young Augustine before his conversion, “I sought whence evil comes and there was no solution.” Yet this view is also thoroughly un-Jewish. Satan or the devil are not part of Judaism’s vocabulary. Nor is the Fall and the doctrine of Original Sin. But it is precisely these concepts which help Christians find order in the midst of chaos.

I return to the painful mystery of evil not only because of the suspected sabotage of TWA flight 800, but also because of the appearance of the Shema in this week’s parasha. I wish to draw your attention to but a single phrase – “al levavkha – upon your heart” – at the end of verse 7 in chapter 6. I cite the Schocken translation of the Bible by Everett Fox to underscore its force: “These words, which I myself command you today, are to be upon your heart.” We tend not to tarry on this verse. It reads like a transition between the state of loving God which precedes it and the activity of teaching our children which follows it. And yet I submit that this short and inconsequential verse points to Judaism’s answer to Augustine.

The function of the verse is to speak of the heart as the locus of our unbounded love for God. More concretely, we are instructed to articulate that love by embracing God’s commandments. Our lifelong challenge is to internalize a set of beliefs, values and actions which is not self-generated, to take what feels alien and unnatural to us and make it our own. The words “upon your heart” identify the scene of battle. It is within the hidden confines of the human heart that our impulses frustrate our ideals. The blood-stained pages of history are but a mirror of our conflicted hearts. To quote Jeremiah (17:9): “Most devious is the heart; it is perverse – who can fathom it?”

By way of explanation, the Torah declares that we humans are composite creatures, a mixture of dirt and divinity. “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth, and He blew into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being (Genesis 2:7).” Instability inheres in our very nature. We are ever prone to commit acts of evil because we were not created perfect.

For two and a half years, the Talmud records, the schools of Hillel and Shammai debated whether God had erred in creating humankind. “One side took the view that it would have been better if we had not been created, while the other argued that creating us was preferable. Finally, they took a vote and concluded that indeed the world would have been better off without us; but now that we are here, let us monitor carefully what we do.”

The goal of Judaism is to temper our inner turmoil, to help us subdue our passions so that we might serve God with an undivided heart. Why is the Hebrew word heart (lev) in the phrase “with all your heart” (Deuteronomy 6:5) written with a double “bet,” (levavkha) asks the Talmud? In order to stress that we are obliged to love God with both our inclinations, those for evil and those for good. God’s commandments, according to one rabbinic view, are but a regimen for self-improvement. The Torah never speaks of Satan, for that would compromise its austere monotheism as affirmed by the Shema, but only of a heart that is hardened or uncircumcised. The culprit lies within.

To conquer the heart, Judaism invests in serious, lifelong education. The centerpiece of the Shema urges us to be our children’s first teachers. Wherever and whenever we might find ourselves together at home or away, in the evening or the morning, opportunities abound to initiate them in God’s words and ways. Persistent and responsible instruction can help prevent our children from abusing the freedom of choice which is their human patrimony.

And yet, the heart remains full of ferment. Each child and every generation must start the task of self-control afresh. Culture is a flawed substitute for heredity. Our genes do not transmit moral achievement.

This sober assessment of human capacity is the seedbed of Jewish messianism. For Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the end of days is to be marked by no more than a transformation of the human heart. In a second covenant, the Torah will be written directly on the heart of every Israelite. To heed God’s laws will become natural. Thus Jeremiah has God promise: “I will put My teaching into their inmost being and inscribe it upon their hearts (31:32).” Similarly Ezekiel: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from you and give you a heart of flesh (36:26).” Till then the task is ours alone. And so the Shema implores us to implant the Torah in our hearts through our own never ending struggle. Endowed with freedom and unencumbered by any reification of evil, we have no one to blame but ourselves if we fail.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Va’et-hannan have been made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.