Moshe Ben-Chaim
Question: How does Judaism define "evil"? How does Judaism deal with evil; how to recognize it, how to combat it, how to avoid it, and why does it exist?
Mesora: Evil is not a creation of God. As God said on each day of creation, "it is good". Evil is not an existence or an animate being as other religions falsely believe, i.e., the "devil", or "Satan" running around the earth causing harm. Instances in Scripture making such statements must be interpreted and not taken literally. The Rabbis explain "Satan" ( when God talked with Satan in the opening of the book of Job) as referring to man's opinion. Such flawed opinions cause man harm and are labeled as Satan , translated as "that which turns away", that is, mans opinions which turn him away from the life of Torah. All such statements usually refer to man's instincts.
Evil is not necessarily pain. As one needing his leg cut open to extract injected, poisonous venom as a good, although it is very painful.
We refer to evil as that which is contrary to God's plan.
For example, the murder of an innocent man is evil, as it removes the person from further pursuit of the good life. However, when one guilty is punished for killing, death is no longer an evil. Evil would also be if one steals from another. This breaks down the necessary societal standards which insure man's well being, securing his means for food, normal living and shelter. Having his possessions taken away unjustly places man in an insecure state, not conducive for the engagement of acts of perfection, study, family life and other necessities.
Evil then is that which removes man from participating in his role of man, i.e., a rational being seeking knowledge, and emotional stability through society and family life.

Maimonides states there are 3 kinds of evils: 1) Nature to man, such as natural disasters, 2) man to man such as wars, and 3) man to himself, which Maimonides says is the most of the evils found.
Natural disaster do occur, but not as an act of God. It is required for human life that there be an Earth which is comprised of soil, and different elevations. Man also needs water, therefore God designed the Earth's system to include rain and oceans. It will then happen by definition, that rains may come to mountainous regions, where some people might live, and mud slides will result killing many. Should we call this evil? Or perhaps since we need soil, rain, and elevations for creating rivers and the like, the better good for the Earth as a whole is to have these ingredients which will occasionally result in the deaths of the few, as compared to the death of all mankind had there been no rains. It should be noted here that even in such circumstances where many die, one who is totally righteous will be spared, "(God will) protect the bones of the righteous." (Psalms 34).
Acts of war are evil as many die. Again, this is man's choice, and God's will is that man chooses his own actions so he may be the cause of his own reward or punishment.
Evils brought by man upon himself are the majority, as man's ignorance of what the good is for himself will result in poor choices. He may chase wealth his entire life, only realizing on his deathbed that he cannot take it with him. His piles of earnings will remain to another. As King Solomon said, it is futile. It did him no good. This chase for wealth is prodded by a fantasy of an imagined good which man believes he will find accompanying his riches. Chasing after physical enjoyments will also result in pain, another evil, as man will never be satiated for long, and again as the Rabbis taught, the more one satisfies a desire, the hungrier that desire becomes. Pleasure is followed by frustration, and more energy is needed to indulge.
Man's nature is never to be satisfied by the physical as an ends, but as a means. The true ends for man, and the true satisfaction is only found in one pursuit, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. The satisfaction of learning the answers to man's question. The continuous and never-ending search for wisdom is what we see was the pursuit of the wisest men. They labored in their studies joyfully, and without end. Read any biography or Einstein, Freud, the Rabbis, and you will find that their interest was solely for learning. They were bothered by problems, and searched for answers many times without sleep. Why such devotion? Because they enjoyed the process of learning. It satisfied their beings with an intensity unmatched by any other pursuit. They lived in line with the nature of man. This "being in line with your nature" is what we define as true happiness. And as man's essential nature is not the physical, but the intellectual, they were essentially happy. Men however, who follow their accidental natures, the physical desires, will only be accidentally and temporarily happy. They will never experience true essential happiness, the type of joy which satisfies every aspect of man's nature.
It may take a novice some time to reach that level of enjoyment, as he may not see it as pleasurable at first. This is only because his energies are used to physical pleasures, and the pain he will perceive is not because learning is painful, but because the extraction from any area is enjoined with some frustration. When energies have to be withdrawn from one area, until they find a new outlet, one is experiencing frustration. This is a very important idea. One must not accuse learning of being painful. He must identify the pain as merely the "acclimation" portion of learning. Additionally, when compared to other more popular, instant gratifying types of activities, one may identify learning as painful, but if one has patience, and applies himself, he will come to see the pursuit of knowledge as incomparable to any other act.
It is also essential that we approach the life of Torah with the correct attitude. Our aim must not be to have the "superego" goal of "finally being a fully practicing Jew, observing all the commands". This type of goal only makes man upset when he falters, and worse, never allows man to study for the real enjoyment of the ideas. This type of person is only trying to "act" properly, without understanding "why" he should do so. I a not saying that this is wrong, as being fully practicing is a high level. What I am saying is that this must not be the ultimate goal. The only way man will enjoy Torah is if he patiently studies each area, not embarking on new topics for the sake of covering ground, but rather, for a pure interest in understanding what God's plan is for him. The Rabbis taught, "it doesn't matter whether one learned much or little, provided that his learning was for the sake of heaven". Meaning, God's concern is that man follow the entire Torah, but only if he does so with understanding of why it is proper, and does so out of a sincere desire to be attached to the truth. One who simply does all the mitzvos without understanding the purpose, or appreciation the design of the Torah system is missing the boat. Yes, we must keep the commands regardless of our understanding, but we must not simply keep the commands and abandon understanding.
It is true that many people are overwhelmed with the amount that we must do in our Torah performance, and at times, some commands are almost impossible for us to do. But at the same time, man must be realistic and know what he can and cannot accomplish at a given period in his life. I don't believe any penitent individual metamorphosized within 24 hours from being non observant to being fully observant. Man's emotions just don't work like a switch which can be immediately turned on or off. Additionally, God will not punish someone for that which he did not know was a responsibility. This basic principle is taught in talmud Shabbos, Chapter 7. Only once one is aware of his obligations and still does not subjugate himself to God's commands will he be punished. God knows the hearts of man, He knows when one is completely unaware, and he knows who is sincerely trying with their full abilities.
The principle to follow is to continuously learn, to act in accordance with the Law, and strive to understand the perfections derived from the system so your love of the Torah and God grows.
As Maimonides stated, "al pi hadeah, t'hiyeh hahavah", "In accordance with your understanding (of Torah) will be your love (of God)".

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