Evil: Can We Truly Transform It? Is That Always Enough?

Parshat Balak, probably more than any other, holds out the promise of almost effortlessly, almost passively, transforming evil. Dedicated, motivated and highly capable, Bil’am, held to be a prophet on the same high level as Moses, finds each of his formidable attempts to curse Israel transformed by God into praise and blessings. One of these, the beloved  מַה־טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל (Ma Tovu, Ohalecha Ya’akov, Mishkanotecha Yisrael) “How good are your tents, Ya’akov, your dwellings, Yisrael”, is recited daily upon entering the synagogue (the “dwelling place” of Jewish communal prayer and study as well as the exilic substitute for the Mishkan, the dwelling place of The Creator).

In a great many real-life situations, the injection of merely a seed of קדושה (Kedusha), holiness, into evil can transform it to good. In fact, our tradition teaches that there exist only a very few people (who nevertheless do always exist) who are fully evil, רשעים גמורים (Rasha’im Gamourim), who can never be redeemed. No amount of good can counteract complete evil.

Modern western culture has at least tried to evolve into one of kindness (this isn’t the forum to evaluate those attempts) and is developing a value system often unable to be strict, unwilling to condemn, ashamed of using analytical skills to evaluate (i.e. aversion to being labeled “judgemental”). Most of the time, and with most people, that probably is a sign of a better world. But it doesn’t always work.

Both the 34th (read every Shabbat and Festival morning) and the 37th Psalm instructs us to סוּר מֵרָע וַעֲשֵׂה־טוֹב (Sur Mey-Rah V’Oseh Tov), Turn away from evil and do good. There are times when we can pursue both goals gradually and simultaneously, by slowly resisting evil we slowly gain strength against it, allowing us to continue successfully wrestling. There are other times, however, when we have to take the word-order more literally and in order to do good we must, first, turn the evil away. For example, picture a glass of muddy, but non-toxic water — little-by-little we can pour out a spoon-at-a-time of this water and replace it, spoon-by-spoon, with clear, fresh water.  Other times, however, the pollution is toxic and even the tiniest drop is fatal. In this case, the only course of action is to completely empty the soiled water and only then, when no trace of the poison remains, can we fill the glass with clean, safe water.

There are some struggles, internal and external, where we have to be satisfied with slow, but steady progress, where we continue to inject Kedusha into the world, mid-wifing its transition to the Ultimate Good. This is a very comfortable situation in a contemporary, western orientation. But it’s also a luxury and our challenges all-too-often, it seems, require more drastic action. Bil’am’s evil isn’t eliminated from the world until he, himself, is killed (BaMidbar 31:7-9).

A successful operation removes an entire tumor, not just a tiny bit hoping the rest will go away on its own.

Shabbat Shalom

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