The situation in Gaza has captivated our attention and evoked an array of intense emotions covering a broad spectrum. The images of lives and homes destroyed are heartbreaking. That Israel must defend her citizens is a given for me; I do not question the imperative to destroy the tunnels Hamas terrorists planned to use to unleash a massive slaughter of Jews. The “collateral damage”—human lives in Gaza—may be inevitable, but it is still disturbing. Like all people of good will, I worry and hope that Tzahal uses the utmost discretion in choosing targets and timing in order to avoid civilian casualties. Knowing that Tzahal communicates by text, phone, and leaflets to warn people to evacuate buildings that have been designated for destruction provides a measure of comfort, but this is often offset by knowing that Hamas tells the people of Gaza to stay put and not leave these buildings. Hamas’ use of human beings (and especially children) to score PR points with the world media is barbaric. Their strategy of storing armaments and missile launchers in schools, hospitals, and civilian neighborhoods to increase the number of civilian deaths is depraved. Their use of the infamous blood libel is despicable. And meanwhile, anti-Jewish riots in France bring back the specter of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. How are we to understand such intrenched evil? Where is God?
This week’s Torah portion, V’etchanan, includes two of the most arguably familiar verses to Jews. The first we call the Shema:
שְׁמַע, יִשְׂרָאֵל: יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ, יְהוָה אֶחָד
Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. (Deuteronomy 6:4)
Although most of us have memorized that translation, it is probably not the original meaning of the verse when set in its ancient Near East context. Perhaps a better rendering would be: Listen, Israel: Adonai is our God, Adonai alone. You may be wondering: What’s the difference? The difference is how we understand the underlying theology. “The Lord is our God, the Lord is one” is an expression of monotheism, the belief that there exists one and only one God in the universe. The prophets of Israel shaped this theology and raised it to an exalted level in ancient Israel and for Judaism ever after. But the Book of Deuteronomy was composed before the prophets came on the scene and in its day people understood that there were many deities recognized by many people, but the one we call Adonai, whose Name is not even pronounced aloud, is the only one Israel acknowledged and worshiped. The term for this is monolotry (one of the many). Today, most Jews readily claim that the Shema is an affirmation of monotheism and a call to serve, worship, and love only Adonai. Monotheism, however, leads to a problem: What is the source of evil in the universe?
There is a hint in the second most familiar verse, which follows the Shema:
וְאָהַבְתָּ, אֵת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁךָ, וּבְכָל-מְאֹדֶך
You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart (levavkha),
with all your soul (nafshekha) and with all your might (me’odekha).
The Talmudic Rabbis, noticing that the letter bet in “your heart” is doubled (it can also be written with one bet), offer this teaching:
It is incumbent on a person to bless [God] for evil in the same way as for good, as it says, You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart. “With all your heart” means with your two impulses: the impulse for evil and the impulse for good. (BT Berakhot 54a)
For the Rabbis, the issue is our choices, our behavior. Every human being is endowed with a life-source energy that is manifest in two natural inclinations: one is the temptation to do evil and the other is the desire to do good. The choice of how to use the life-force energy within us is ours to make, and consequently the responsibility for that decisions resides with us. Evil, therefore, results from human choice. God can respond with warnings and punishments, the Bible holds, but cannot prevent terrorists who are determined to use innocent people as human shields, and store armaments in locations that will assure civilian casualties.
But the inescapable conclusion of monotheism is that everything in the world derives from God. For God to be the only God and the creator of everything, even evil (even if it is our choice) is ultimately woven of the threads God spins. It is no surprise, then, when the prophet Isaiah says:
יוֹצֵר אוֹר וּבוֹרֵא חֹשֶׁךְ, עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם וּבוֹרֵא רָע; אֲנִי יְהוָה, עֹשֶׂה כָל-אֵלֶּה
I form the light and create darkness; I make peace and create evil;
I am the LORD, that does all these things. (Isaiah 45:7)
That, of course, makes God if not the author of evil, certainly the ultimate source. Not a comfortable idea. When the Rabbis, delighting in Isaiah’s light-and-dark imagery, use Isaiah’s words in the morning prayers they shade the meaning by adjusting the vocabulary just a tad: “I form light and create darkness: I make peace and create everything.” The problem of evil fades into the background momentarily.
The mystics, and particularly the Kabbalists of Tzfat, re-imagine the creation of the universe in an effort to explain the prevalence of evil. Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the Ari, asked: If God is infinite and pervades the universe, how could anything else—and particularly human beings—come into being? Clearly, it could not, and hence God’s first act of Creation was tzimtzum (“contraction”) whereby God contracted from a portion of the universe to make room for human beings to abide and exert their free will. Into the space vacated by God and intended for human beings, God emanated divine light contained in sacred vessels but the vessels could not contain the powerful light and shattered, releasing sparks of God’s divine light out into the world. In other words, there was a cataclysmic accident during creation and the world did not unfold according to the Divine plan. Each divine spark was captured and trapped in an element of material existence. This explains the disunity and pervasive evil in our world: this was not as God “intended” but it is nonetheless redeemable. Every mitzvot, every act of chesed (kindness), every display of rachamim (compassion) repairs and heals the world.
The S’fat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger, 1847–1905), added another dimension to the conversation about evil. Interpreting Deuteronomy 6:5 from this week’s parashah, he explains:
You shall love Adonai your God. The midrash quotes: Whom do I have in heaven; I desire none alongside You in earth (Psalm 73:25). This means one should want nothing but God… And the meaning of בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ is not “with all your heart,” as most people interpret it. But rather, we need to become aware that each feeling we have is only the life-force that comes from God. “A person does not bang his finger below unless it is decreed from above” — we are but “the axe in the woodchopper’s hand.” This is the meaning of Adonai is one. It goes beyond the fact that there is just one God; there is Adonai and nothing else. Everything that exists is only [God’s] blessed life, but it is hidden. The same is true of [God’s] blessed will. Therefore, the love of God has to be in every feeling a person has. This is בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ (“all your heart”).
The S’fat Emet impresses upon us that the unity of God (long understood as the message of the Shema) is vaster and more encompassing than we realized. There is nothing else but God. All is contained in God. Therefore human beings, their actions, and even their wills and intensions, are part of God. Everything is happening within God because there is nothing outside God. And while this mystical viewpoint does not entirely solve the problem of the very real evil in our world and the suffering it inflicts on countless people, it offers a small measure of hope: repair and healing are possible, bit by bit, through acts of good will, chesed, and rachamim. The world is dynamic and evolving in the direction of goodness. I cannot see and feel that every day—certainly not these days—but believing it is true keeps hope alive. And hope, after all, is a sacred mitzvah.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman