Rabbi Chaim Possick
Former Rosh Kollel in St. Louis
The essence of evil:
There are those who claim that man is a victim of random fate. They approach evil by attempting to ignore its existence; in other words, they “suffer in silence”. Yet, Rav Soloveitchik (Kol Dodi Dofek, Mossad HaRav Kook, p. 66) refutes this viewpoint. Evil exists; we all encounter it; and disregarding it will not make it go away.
Obviously, the Rav cannot accept a position which holds that man is subject to fate. After all, Judaism insists that both Am Yisrael as a whole and man as an individual are tasked with missions. The experiences which one undergoes throughout one’s life serve as signposts to direct one towards one’s mission. This idea applies to evil as well:
“From within the dark suffering of a man who faces the inscrutable enigma of evil in reality, G-d is revealed. ‘And I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood; and I said to you with your blood live.’ (Yechezkel 16:6)… Even amidst the harsh judgment, when man cannot abide its nature and its essence, G-d is exposed. Even amidst negation and inscrutability, the True Judge penetrates and ascends.” (U’Vikashtem Sham, p. 144)
Evil constitutes a signpost for man, as indicated by Parshat Nitzavim:
“And it will be when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you; and you will take it to your heart…” (Devarim 30:1)
The Torah commands man to take note when evil occurs. Evil must not be ignored. Yet, how must one relate to suffering?
When a person understands that there is a purpose to his existence, he lives an active and productive life. His life’s motto is “action”. As the Rav states:
“There is evil, and I do not deny it nor do I cover it up with futile casuistry. I am interested in it from a halachic perspective, as a man who wants to know which action to take. I ask a simple question, ‘What should the sufferer do in order to live with his suffering?’”
The Rav provides an answer to this question:
“Suffering comes in order to uplift man, to purify his spirit and to sanctify it, to cleanse his thoughts and to distill them from all of superficiality’s refuse and the boundaries of coarseness; to refine his soul and to broaden his life’s horizons.” (Kol Dodi Dofek, pp. 6869)
As the Torah teaches us:
“When you are distressed, and all these things have befallen you… you will return unto Hashem your God.” (Devarim 4:30)
In other words, evil serves to spur man to constructive action – i.e. to teshuvah.
His sins are transformed into merits:
Thus far, we have seen that during times of misfortune, a person must view his circumstances as a message from Hashem, to motivate him to mend his ways and to do teshuvah. Yet, the Gemara (BT Yoma 86b) introduces another aspect of teshuvah:
“Reish Lakish said, ‘Great is teshuvah, for zedonot (willful transgressions) are transformed for him into shgagot (inadvertent errors).”
In “Biur HaChet Oh HeAlato”, the Rav discusses this Gemara. He asks why the evil-doer receives a “bonus” by having his zedonot turned into shgagot. The Rav explains that there is a type of teshuvah which does not erase past actions. Rather than delete all his transgressions, the sinner raises them up until he is no longer considered to be an evil-doer. How is this achieved? According to the Rav, in the wake of the transgression, the sinner begins to long to draw closer to Hashem. His zedonot are transformed into shgagot, because the sinner retroactively imbues his sins with a positive meaning by using them to generate this longing to draw nearer to Hashem.
Such is Yisrael’s redemption:
In Hilchot Teshuvah (7:5), the Rambam talks about both teshuvah and geulah (redemption):
“All of the prophets commanded with respect to teshuvah, and Yisrael is only redeemed through teshuvah. And the Torah promised that in the end, Yisrael will do teshuvah at the conclusion of their galut (exile) and then immediately be redeemed. As it says, ‘And it will be when all these things come upon you… and you will return unto Hashem, your God…’ (Devarim 30:1-2)”“Teshuvah which brings man closer to the Shechinah.”
As we have seen, this is a teshuvah which results from a transformation of the past. Geulah is a rectification of evil rather than an obliteration of evil:
“And the wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the kid… They will neither harm nor destroy on My entire sacred mountain.” (Yeshaya 11:6-9)
A comparison of the individual’s private teshuvah process to the general geulah process reveals that calamities are an essential component of the geulah process. Am Yisrael endures misfortune in order to return their hearts to their Father in Heaven. The nation must view these calamities as signposts which indicate that we must do teshuvah and rise to a higher level. This teshuvah must be teshuvah m’ahavah (teshuvah which is based on love), and it must uplift the past instead of erasing it. As the calamities increase in frequency and strength, the ensuing teshuvah uplifts to a greater degree, and the resultant closeness to the Shechinah is greater as well.