Thursday, July 14, 2005

Subduing Evil

In Jewish terms, G-d’s purpose for making humanity was to make this world aware of His presence and therefore to make this world a better place. The Torah was given with this in mind; it is a blueprint for life, for human existence, and for humane existence. The Torah introduced humanity to a notion of fixed right and wrong, notions that were only meaningful if they took both means and ends into account. In this view, it is impossible to reach a higher end by violating the means, or in other words, it is unacceptable to perform a bad deed with the intent in mind to perform a greater deed. The classic example is that it is forbidden to cause one person to die in order to save two, or ten, or twenty other people, for the life of a human being is immeasurable in value.

But how do we go about making the world a better place? The Torah takes into account both the internal and external factors that are needed to be recognized in this task. The Torah is made up of both commandments that are focused on the internal self of the human and his relationship with G-d and with the human self, the interaction between individual and individual, individual and group, and group and group. Ultimately, the relationship is also between the group and G-d and humanity and G-d. The point of these commandments is to learn how to subdue the evil that exists in this world and the evil that exists within us.

If one were to look at the nature of evil, it would be clear to see that it is both an internal and external force. Indeed, evil must have a point of origin, so the question is, is the originating point of evil internal or external, is it in humanity or is it in the world? It must come from somewhere. The world is not a living thing, so it would be irrational to say that evil comes from the world, that somehow nature emits evil, creating the world that we live in. The other possibility is that evil comes from within humanity, and to some degree, from individuals, and therefore can be replaced by the good that comes from us. Evil is defined by Judaism as the choice to, or the loss of control that leads a person to lose self-control, do something wrong. Every human being possesses an animalistic side that is untamed and wild, and giving way to that side of humanity causes a person to act in error, be it violence, unbridled lust, or even depression. The point is that all of these things are connected to a loss of control, a person doesn’t choose to be violent, lustful, or depressed, and usually they don’t want to, and a little bit of effort can bring these things into the realm of control.

However, Judaism also says that these forces, these forms of energy, serve certain purposes if they are carried out in mindful and pure manners. For example, when one is defending oneself, the emotion that leads to violence, rage, can be beneficial. In the context of marriage between a loving husband and wife, lust is not bad. Depression, or sadness, might be a result of something tragic that happened, therefore indicating that the depressed person understands the reality of the tragedy. Eventually however, it must pass. Unless we can say that nature is evil or ill-willed, for example, hurricanes or volcanoes that kill people, we have to conclude that the source of evil is internal. For example, when a person drowns, he dies, we don’t say that the water murdered him, but when a person drowns another person, he has murdered him. It is the presence of will that makes murder murder, and it is will that can prevent murder. There is no use in getting mad at the forces of nature or thanking them; they have no power of choice. Evil therefore, is internal, and so is good.

However, both evil and good can be externalized, and rarely do they last as internal forces for long periods of time. It seems that we have a direct relationship with the world around us; what we put in is what goes out, and what goes out is then what we are surrounded by and therefore what goes in, and so on. But it must start somewhere, and that point is us, the human being. When we consider that the world already seems to be functioning in a semi-automatic fashion, we exclude the notion that whatever manner in which it is functioning is due to the human beings that have made up that society. Society on its own is not an independent force, it does not just exist. Therefore, humanity has created society.

However, many times society actually becomes a semi-independent force; rather than we choosing and maintaining society in the way we want, we take the back seat and let it influence us. In these cases, we speak about society as having a “mind.” This reality says something about human nature, it is easier and more natural to be formed, or to conform, to an already-existing set of norms, and it has little or nothing to do with the actual nature of those norms or their implications. Society functions like a vacuum, it is an empty space, and all empty spaces must be filled with something, and those somethings are norms, which become laws. Very few people take much time to think about the norms that they follow day-in and day-out; they go along with them because they allow them to function in society. There is nothing wrong with this, many norms exist as purely functional norms, and they allow people to understand each other as when speaking the same language. But some norms have deeper implications than simple communication.

For example, taking something that does not belong to you is act of violation; it has nothing to do with maintaining society’s internal order, but rather, violates that standard of internal order. A more subtle example is the conceptual interchange that occurs when two people are talking to each other. In human interactions, it is important to give another person the benefit of the doubt; it is a tool that can be used to keep societies in working order. Furthermore, it is the very will of G-d that humans interact peacefully, which is not always the easiest thing. But interacting peacefully with another person is not an external behavior because a person that does not understand the internal mechanisms of getting along with another person will not be able to achieve it. Therefore, the commandment to give another person the benefit of the doubt is both an internal and external exercise; internally, it leads to self-improvement, externally, it leads to fairness. Ultimately, both are pleasing to G-d. When we live in a society with many vacuums that can be filled with many types of ideas and thinking, it is extraordinarily important to have a set of values that reflect higher thinking. In Judaism, this set of values is called the Torah.

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