Dr. H. David Burstein 2003.
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life” Deuteronomy 30:19
The last two years have exposed people to dramatically to the evil in the world. Until September 11, 2001 many people did not want to admit that there was evil. We have read history, we know about the Holocaust and other atrocities. But it took the sight of two jets flying into the towers of the World Trade Center for people to get it, though some still have their “Eyes Wide Shut”.
People in denial do not want to acknowledge that evil comes from within the individual. They think it always originates from external, societal forces. Recognizing the dark side that exists in each of us is too challenging to them.
The Hebrew Bible is not only the story of our people, but represents a Jewish understanding of the human condition, and how we are to act in life. The Book of Genesis begins with the story of Adam and Eve, the metaphoric ancestors of all humanity. When they chose to eat from a tree, it was from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The story teaches us that if we are going to have free will, grow up and take responsibility for our actions, we have to understand that there are consequences for whatever action we choose.
“The devil made me do it” is not a Jewish idea of responsibility.
Human beings are partners with G-d in creation. The way we relate to the Creator is by being creative in what we do and produce. To do good and pursue truth and justice is our task. We are here to enjoy life and make the world a better place.
The driving forces for a lot of what we do are our own emotions. However, emotions are morally neutral; they each have a context and purpose. Ultimately it is what we do with the energy of our emotions that counts.
Of all human emotions, the only one dealt with in the 10 Commandments had to do with coveting that which belongs to someone else.
Not to covet, which is an extension of envy, is a “fence around the law”. If you learn not to covet, chances are you will not be tempted to commit the sins of murder, adultery, stealing or lying in court.
However, while we are told that envy is a bad emotion, I contend that the opposite of envy is worse and can sometimes lead to greater evil.
In his book “Everyday Ethics”, Joshua Halberstam discussed the idea of “schadenfreude”. If a working definition of envy is the (silent) sadness you have in seeing another person being successful, schadenfreude is the (silent) joy you feel in witnessing the failure of others.
When properly channeled, envy can motivate us to work to obtain the things we want. But what is so potentially damaging about schadenfreude is that it is the perversion of the emotion of joy.
From gossip to athletic taunting, schadenfreude actually pervades our society. If left unchecked, it will ultimately lead to sadism and masochism. Evil people manipulate and destroy for the sake of their own joy at inflicting the suffering.
Narcissism and nihilism together are a deadly combination. Evil people cannot even be honest with themselves. They pervert religion and patriotism when they invoke G-d and country to justify their behavior.
Judaism evolved in the world to be the opposite.
I believe in the eternal nature of our religion because I see parallels in human behavior in the Bible and today. It has focused on ideas that have been around and continue to affect our daily lives. While we see evil today, can you imagine what must have been going on in the world at the time that the Jewish ethical evolution actually took place?
There are many ways that the Jewish love of life is taught in the Bible. But three stories in particular pertain to the about the world in which we are living.
Central to this is each of us are created in the image of God and that we are all of infinite value and potential. That is why murder is the worst ethical sin.
The Binding of Isaac
Of all the events of the Hebrew Bible, the meaning, implications and symbolism of the binding of Isaac have been cornerstone ideas of western civilization. From the similar imagery of the crucifixion of Christ, to Muslims saying it was actually Ishmael who was to be sacrificed, the tension of the God-father-son relationship is profound. But for all the talk, isnt the most obvious one that G-d is telling us is that we are not to sacrifice the innocent lives of our children to express our gratitude to Him?
To murder that which you created, in order to say thank you to your own Creator, is perverse. To intentionally sacrifice your own ( a mosque, the Jordanian embassy, the UN offices, plus oil and water pipelines) is evil. Blowing oneself up in order to murder others is evil.
The Exodus from Egypt
Not only were the Hebrews leaving Egypt as a way to escape slavery, they were also leaving a society that was preoccupied with death. After all, the pyramids were tombs.
While ancient Egyptian civilization ultimately disappeared, remnants of its thinking have survived in the mentality that celebrates the paradise after death.
The Jewish response is that while it absolutely affirms an afterlife, our focus is to be on this world. We are to choose life.
The Ethics of Power
Basic to the message of leaving slavery and being partners with God is, that if we are given free will, it is our responsibility not to abuse this free will when we have power over other people. This is borne out because 36 times when there are ethical edicts in the Bible, there is the reminder that we were slaves in the land of Egypt. You know what it is like to be powerless, therefore you must not treat people badly when you have power.
Is it not evil when we see the intentional manipulation and brainwashing of members of ones society to hate someone else? Moreover, this hate is fostered to such an extent that people are willing to give up their lives. Hatred is more important than life itself.
The narcissism of anyone who would be part of this manipulation to have someone else do ones own “dirty work” is evil.
The observation made in my youth is true. Evil really is live spelled backwards.
We all know the potential beauty of life. When we see people suffer and prematurely die from natural causes it violates the integrity of this knowledge. It sometimes prompts us to do something, like donating to medical research so fewer people will suffer in the future.
But now is the time we have fight back against evil people who want to destroy all the life affirming causes we know that make life itself such a gift.