SPARK OF THE WEEK

5754 - #37

In Spark of the Week 5754 - #35, I wrote that the essence of evil, as personified by Bilaam, is "the desire to defiantly say no to Him even at the expense of losing all pleasure and facing all punishments". The difficulty with this perspective is that behaviour of this nature would seem to be based more on foolishness than evil. T.B. Sotah 3a does, in fact, recognize the existence of the former in sin for "a person does not commit a transgression unless a spirit of foolishness enters him". Yet, evil and foolishness cannot be equated; and in the defiance of a Bilaam there is evil. The question is: how could this evil exist when obviously so self-defeating? Why would someone choose evil even at the expense of "losing all pleasure and facing all punishments"? I left this as a question for readers to ponder and research but, at the request of many, I now turn to further investigate this matter.

What is the motivation to sin? Generally we consider human beings to be caught within a struggle of desire and control. Good is deemed to arise from our ability to control ourselves - from not doing what we simply wish to do. Sin is usually considered to be the result of unleashed desire - we simply do what we wish to do. While this obviously is a gross oversimplification, in this light, sin is not seen as arising from an intrinsic negation of or rebellion against G-d, but rather from the forces of desire within us - and so we construct models of good and evil built on these premises. In our presentation of the evil of Bilaam, we, though, were challenging these very models. The argument for control was clear and desire could be controlled, yet Bilaam chose not to truly follow G-d. Why?

In fact, the model of desire and control is accepted by Torah as a real model for sin. The aveira l'tei'avon, sin of desire, is a halachic category, generally serving as a mitigating factor in the Halacha's attitude towards the transgressor. See for example T.B. Chullin 3a-4b. Our search for reasons for mitzvot is actually our exploration into the purpose of control and why it is necessary - built on our recognition that G-d only commands for our benefit (see Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, The Handbook of Jewish Thought 3:4, footnotes for numerous sources in this regard). Yet it is within the halachic category of aveira l'ha'chis, sin of defiance (literally to provoke, anger) that ultimate evil is deemed to reside. The transgressor within this category is to be treated harshly with many rights granted by the Halacha to be withdrawn from this individual. See Encyclopedia Talmudit 1:436. But again the question: why would anyone act simply in defiance and rebellion against Hashem when this very endeavour is so futile and furthermore so self-destructive?

We could postulate the existence of an evil drive to rebel against G-d - but than the aveira l'hachis would really be an aveira l'tei'avon, of a very specific type, perhaps, but nonetheless of similar intrinsic mechanism. We would also have to ask what the purpose within good this drive would have. Judaism emphatically declares that everything Hashem creates must have purpose. See Iggerot HaKodesh, chapter 2 for powerful words in this regard. Even the yetzer hara, the so called evil inclination must have a good function. See T.B. Yoma 69b. Subsequently, if we state that there is a desire to rebel, then we must find a good purpose for such a drive. Ultimately, though, no matter how we explain the aveira l'hachis we will have to explain the potential good within its elements.

In Tree of Knowledge, Nishma VII-IX, I introduced the inherent tension of humanity. On one hand, G-d created us to exercise our own will; on the other hand, we were also created to follow His Will. We could say that Bilaam's evil arose from the former dominating the latter, but is the aveira l'hachis simply an act by a "spoiled teenager" wishing to exert his/her will even though this decision will be detrimental? And is good the result of the latter dominating the former? It is simple to turn these two sides of humanity into the classic battle of good and evil, but is that the true reflection of our creation? Adam and Chava's paradox arose because both parts were created by G-d and to be treated with equal respect. The answer to our understanding of good and evil is not to be found in the definition of our parts but in how we unite them to form our selves. In the way that G-d created us, He gave us the challenge of uniting our multiple drives into a oneness of self through the power of a will that is inherently paradoxical, thereby achieving the completion of the creation of the unique person that we are. The aveira l'tei'avon is actually an act of failure in our goal of self creation. It indicates that we allowed a part of ourselves to act without regard for the totalness of our being. But the aveira l'hachis is different. It reflects the self created and the process applied to connect the parts indicating divergence from the self G-d wished to be.

In Bilaam's defiance of Hashem, He was actually declaring his being and that no amount of "persuasion" from G-d would change that declaration. In this light, the no to G-d sounds heroic, a trueness to oneself that would not be bent...but it is not praiseworthy, not because it is foolish but because the being protected is evil, not the Divinely desired product that should have been created from the talents that Bilaam was given. What though is the core distinction between the completion of self that is defined as evil and that which is defined as good? Both contain all our parts - yes even the paradoxical dual nature of our will is maintained in the unity of self that is evil. Evidence Bilaam - prophet who acted as G-d commanded and, in fact, stated that "even if Balak gave [him] a house full of silver and gold [he] would not be able to violate the word of Hashem [his] L-rd" (Bamidbar 22:18).

The answer must include the fact that it is against Hashem's goal. It also brings forth the pain of gehenom. Further clarity may lie in the very place that we started - Mishna Avot 5:22. Contemplate also the difficulty of the challenge G-d has presented to us and our responses to life itself. We have taken the discussion to the next step. I leave it for you to further the study.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht


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2002 NISHMA