“The Origins and Meanings of Evil”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Especially in light of the World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorist bombings, human beings all over the world are searching for the origins and meanings of evil. In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Bereishith, we learn of those origins, which of course sheds light on the meanings. At the conclusion of the sixth day of creation, after the creation of land, water, the sun, the moon, the grass, the trees, the birds, the fish, all the land animals, and after the creation of the human being, the Torah says in Genesis 1:31, “Va’yar Eloh’kim et kol asher as’ah, v’hee’nay tov m’od,” and G-d saw all that he had made, and behold it was very good. And it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day.

In one of his funny routines, Bill Cosby says that when General Motors manufactures an automobile, they call it “revolutionary.” When General Electric manufactures a refrigerator, it is called “extraordinary.” The Al-mighty creates a tree and a rabbit, and all the Al-mighty says is that it was “very good.” The automobile and the refrigerator are long in the junk heap, the tree is still blossoming and the rabbit is still hopping. But it’s just “very good.”

If everything was so “very good,” then where does evil enter the picture? According to scriptures, G-d places the human beings in the Garden of Eden and in Genesis 2:16 commands them, “Mee’kol aitz ha’gan ach’ol to’chail,” You may eat of all the trees of the garden. Just don’t eat of the eitz ha’da’at tov v’rah, of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life.

As is well known, the human beings defy G-d. Seduced by the wily serpent, in Genesis 3, the woman eats of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and gives the man to eat as well. Suddenly they realize that they are naked. The man, of course, tries to blame the woman for his transgression, and the woman blames the serpent for her violation. But in Genesis 3:16, the human beings pay the price for their defiance. G-d introduces pain and death in to the world. He informs the woman that she will suffer great pain during childbirth, and He tells the man that he will earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. He then informs both of them that “from dust you came and from dust you will return,” that they are no longer immortal, and that they will ultimately suffer death.

While it is true that G-d created the potential for evil, by giving the human being freedom of choice, the ability to defy G-d, the humans in effect introduced evil into the world.

The Talmud tells us that G-d created the healing for every illness, in fact that the creation of the healing preceded the creation of any illnesses. So while defiance of G-d resulted in death and evil in the world, the human being has the capacity to overcome those evils by following G-d’s instructions, adhering to the words of the Torah.

Especially after the recent calamity, and of course after the Holocaust, people constantly ask “Where was G-d?” But truth is that people should ask, “Where was man?” It strikes me as profoundly ironic that over the last 100 years, through the miracles of modern medicine, the life span of the average human being has been extended by 25-30 years, and nobody says “Where is G-d?” “I’d like to shake His hand, I’d like to give Him a “yasher koach”, to congratulate Him and thank Him.” But, whenever calamity strikes, we are so quick to blame G-d.

Let’s face it, much of the recent disaster was due to extraordinary negligence on the part of our country’s security services. A constant stream of reports ex post facto indicate that there were many signs of an imminent terrorist attack, and yet little or nothing was done. John Magaw, acting director of National Preparedness at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told audiences recently that over the past dozen years “two or three reports” were written urging the authorities to “prepare for an aircraft hitting one of our big buildings.” “The reports,” Mr. Magaw said, “kind of drew dust.”

We who live in the most technologically sophisticated society, have had the opportunity to cure many illnesses including cancer, but we have time and again frittered away the opportunity by spending billions of dollars on enhancing our nuclear arsenals and wasting so much on our violent and sexually oriented entertainment. Just the wasted food from New York City alone could probably feed most of the malnourished children in America, but we choose not to make that our priority. Is this then G-d’s fault?

I would go even further. I believe that ultimately it will be technologically possible to predict and possibly prevent even natural disasters like earthquakes, typhoons, and tornadoes. We know that to this very day people choose to live on the edge, and elect to build their homes on very unsafe sites–on geological faults, on rivers that regularly overflow, and yet we blame G-d.

While G-d allowed for the creation of evil, evil is part of the gift of freedom of choice that G-d has given us.

It was the human being who introduced evil into the world. After all, when G-d created the world he saw that it was “very good,” and it is “very good.” We now have the opportunity, nay the mission, to keep it “good,” and make it even better.

May you be blessed.