“The Origins and Meaning of Evil”
(updated and revised from Bereshith 5762-2001)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


After 9/11 and the World Trade Center terrorist bombings, we thought that evil had reached its peak. Yet, since that fateful day, not a year has gone by without some new atrocity capturing the news headlines, pushing the envelope of evil higher and higher. As civilization continues to live in fear, human beings the world over constantly seek to understand the origins and meanings of evil.

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bereshith, there is much insight that we may gain from the biblical account of the origins of evil, and the Torah’s understanding of its meaning.

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, וַיַּרְא אֱ־לֹקִים אֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, וְהִנֵּה טוֹב מְאֹד , 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.

A popular classic comedy routine points out the stark difference between human creation and Divine creation. When General Motors manufactures an automobile, they call it “revolutionary.” When General Electric manufactures a refrigerator, itiscalled “extraordinary.” The Al-mighty creates a tree and a rabbit, and all He 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–even though they were only “very good.”

If everything was so “very good,” then where does evil enter the picture?

According to scripture, G-d places the human beings in the Garden of Eden and commands them, Genesis 2:16, מִכֹּל עֵץ הַגָּן אָכֹל תֹּאכֵל , You may eat of all the trees of the garden. Just don’t eat of the עֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע , of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

As is well known, the first humans 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 wrongdoing, and the woman blames the serpent for her violation. But, in Genesis 3:16-19 Adam and Eve pay a stiff price for their defiance. G-d introduces pain and death to the world. He informs the woman that she will have to endure 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, introduce evil into the world.

The Talmud (Megillah 13b) declares that G-d creates the healing for every illness, in fact, the creation of the antidote precedes the creation of any illnesses. So, while defiance of G-d resulted in death and introduced evil to 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.

Whenever great calamity strikes, and, of course, after the Holocaust, people constantly ask, “Where was G-d?” But, when viewed from the proper perspective, people should really be asking, “Where was man?” It is 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 40 years or more, and, yet, nobody asks, “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 quick to blame G-d.

Even when looking back at the Holocaust, we now know that many of the world leaders knew early on about the barbaric extermination of the Jews, but for political or mendacious reasons they chose to do nothing. We now know that the World Trade Center calamity was, in great part, due to extraordinary negligence on the part of our country’s security services. A constant stream of reports ex post facto indicated that there were many signs of an imminent terrorist attack, and yet little or nothing was done. John Magaw, at the time, acting director of National Preparedness at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, reported that over the dozen years that preceded the attack, “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 enormous amounts of 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?

And, don’t get me started on the lack of preparedness for the Covid 19 pandemic, for which there were abundant warnings.

I would go even further. I believe that ultimately it will be technologically possible to predict, and possibly prevent, even natural disasters, such as hurricanes, 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 the edge of rivers that regularly overflow, and yet we blame G-d.

While G-d allowed for the creation of evil, evil is a result of the great gift of freedom of choice that G-d has given humankind.

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 sacred obligation, to keep it “good,” and make it even better.

May you be blessed.