We’re turning 100 in 2022! Help us share the wisdom of Kabbalah for our next 100 years! DONATE NOW
Since time immemorial man has contemplated life, questioned existence and has consequently tried to understand the nature of evil. The kabbalists offer a clear definition of what evil is, where it comes from and how to destroy it.
When you ask Manya Brauer about evil, this holocaust survivor will tell you "Evil is like being surrounded by flames. The flames are consuming you and everything that is life. And there is no way out." She knows what evil looks like. She stared it in the face.
"I was sleeping on the floor, it was dirty, filthy with straw." Manya says, "We got up and we tried to wash ourselves. There was a pipe. Girls went to get drops of water, that would come out once in a while, and maybe if we would catch it, we would try and wash ourselves. It was bitter cold... They gave us a ration of a hundred grams of bread which was one slice a day and something like soup, but it was water with something swimming around in it, we did not know what it was. That was our food. There was lice, rats, running around on top of our heads... I tried to escape but a prison guard caught me and kicked me in the back. For weeks I lay there in the comer like an animal."
What is this vast divide between us that justifies perpetuating these kinds of horrors? What dark shadow eclipsed the vision of so many that they could willingly take part in mass destruction and genocide? And what’s more, how could a Creator which is all good and all sharing create individuals housing such a tremendous capacity for evil behavior?
According to the Kabbalists, the nature of separation gives rise to the creation of evil. As Rav Ashlag explains in An Entrance to the Zohar, "We know quite clearly that God's Thought of Creation, whose whole purpose was to give enjoyment to those He created, created out of necessity the Will to Receive from Him all the goodness and pleasantness that He thought for them. This Will to Receive was not contained in the essence of the Almighty before He created it in the souls; for from whom could He have received anything? Therefore, He created something completely "new" that was not contained within Him. In spiritual matters difference in form works in the same way that a blade separates material substances. The distance between the two will be in proportion to how opposite in form they are to each other. This difference of form which the souls possess acts as a blade and cuts out a stone from a mountain. It was by means of this difference of form that the souls were detached from the Creator and became separate from Him, so that they became something that was created." This was the creation of this world. A world of Good and Evil.
The Kabbalists describe the Creator Himself as the final degree of the Desire to Share and goodness, making the endmost degree of Desire to Receive ‑ which is separate from Him ‑ evil.
When the Creator created the souls, in essence He created the perfect vessel, a receiver, with a nature entirely opposite to His own so that he could share His beneficence. The purpose of this creation as Rav Ashlag explained was to fill the souls with His Light. As long as the vessel is full of Light then the vessel takes on the characteristics of the Creator ‑- endless goodness, endless sharing. However, in assuming the qualities of the Creator, the vessel desires to share without limit. With whom? The Light had no need or Desire to Receive anything, so a deal was struck that a world would be created where the souls could share and would only receive the Light ‑ the beneficence of the Creator when it was earned ‑ by behaving in affinity with the Light. Upon the creation of this world, where there once was Light, darkness filled the void.
This absence of Light, the Kabbalists say, is evil. Evil is the Desire to Receive for One's Self Alone.
Every human being in this world includes the polarities of both desires: to share and to receive. Our cumulative desires create one quantum vessel. When we make individual decisions, we collectively affect the whole. When people act with tolerance sharing, and goodness, then there is Light in the world, part of the original deal. Conversely, if we are lazy, intolerant, hateful, angry (even to the smallest degree) those negative qualities accumulate and keep the Light out, allowing darkness to cloud the world.
Manya describes one of the darkest moment she saw: "Mothers had to give up their babies. In one of the camps, Camp de Rievesalts, in southern France, we were in a camp with all nationalities - German, Hungarian, Polish, French ‑ all Jewish. Just before deportation these woman gave up their babies, to some organizations, so they [the babies] would not be deported with them, because they [the mothers] were heading for the death camps. I will never forget. As long as I live I will see those screaming babies and mothers."
How can the choice to torture and torment come from human beings?
The Kabbalah explains that just as there is the essence of God inside us there is also the essence of evil. There is an internal evil as well as a quantum source that is empowered and strengthened by our own evil. That quantum evil is referred to as the Satan, the Angel of Death. But the Satan is not a character, it is a negative force. The function of this force is to create the circumstances that give us an opportunity, of our own free will, to share and be like the Creator. By choosing to share we transform our natural inborn inclination to receive, into the Godly aspect of sharing. Thereby, we earn the Light for our own vessel and the quantum vessel. In The Way of God Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto explains free will by describing the nature of man. "Only man is placed between perfection and deficiency, with the power to earn perfection. Man must earn this perfection, however through his own free will and desire. If he were compelled towards perfection, then he would not really be the master of it. Rather He who compelled him would be the one responsible, and God's purpose would not be fulfilled. It was therefore necessary that man be given free will and be balanced between good and evil, and not be compelled towards either. He has the power of choice, and is able to choose either side, knowingly and willingly, and posses whichever he wishes."
The negative force stirs the evil inside us and tries to tempt us into making choices that feed our Desire to Receive for Ourselves Alone. If a person considers himself to be a good person then clearly committing a crime is out of the question. So the evil force will not instill such an extreme idea. Rather the initial temptations will be something small. Like drugs, once the rush of gratifying ourselves is experienced then the desire grows bigger and bigger until the potential for something very negative can exist even for a “good person.” According to the wisdom of the sages, as long as we live we have the potential to fall.
"I would have to admit that at first I developed a deep hatred for anything German," Manya says, "until I understood that I cannot be put on the same level with a Nazi, with hatred that consumed, in spite of all that happened. I said to myself I will not hate anybody regardless, because if I do it will destroy me at the end as well. I was intuitively following my instincts to survive as a decent human being. Not to follow in their footsteps. You have to dig inside of you and ask: What, all you’re going to do is hate? Some people think that you have to hate them, and if not then you are a traitor. I want to live a living life. I do not want to live a dying life. And to me, hate is death. We are the sole masters of our behavior."
Each and every time we behave with the Desire to Receive for Ourselves Alone we give energy and empower the quantum evil force increasing the potential for another holocaust to happen again. What we may not realize is how insignificant the actions are that create mass devastation. Even seemingly meaningless chit-chat can create havoc on the world. The Talmud teaches that the destruction of the first temple occurred because of evil speech. What is not generally known is that what took place then was one of the most devastating holocausts of human existence.
The Zohar and many ancient texts and sages explain that evil speech is one of the most serious crimes a person can commit. There are many ways to kill a person physically or emotionally and spiritually. Evil speech is the assassination of one's character. Because speech has energy and influence, when we speak badly about others, we not only hurt and damage their lives, but our words connect with the energy of other harmful words, and become compounded, developing into a climate of hate and intolerance.
The Zohar stresses further, that once a critical mass of Desire to Receive for the Self Alone is reached ‑- when we speak badly about others, when we judge others, when we are selfish, when we do not treat others with human dignity -‑ then evil weighs more heavily on the scales. Once the balance of power is controlled by the evil force, there is no protection for anyone. When man creates enough negativity the result is floods, hurricanes, genocide etc.
"We were victims of bullies that stormed over us," Manya explains "I was only a kid and I can tell you that when it all happened I questioned why is it that this evil is turning against me. We went through stages of thinking that something was wrong with being Jewish but did not know what it was. In normal times there was always one group of Jews hating another for no reason. One group of Jewish people were always looking down on another group of Jewish people. In the camps, Jewish people treated each other with much more tolerance than in freedom." Is it possible that Hitler , like the ravages of nature, was a formation of evil caused by the negativity of mankind? And if so, what could be done to prevent such atrocities in the future?
Often great Rabbis and Kabbalists disagreed on the manner by which to cleave to the Creator and bring redemption. In the late 1200's in Spain Rabeinu Yona burned the writings of the Rambam in a particular square, in rebuke of his work. Some years later Rabeinu Yona witnessed the burning of the books of Torah by the Spaniards in that same square. At that moment he realized that this was the effect of his own actions many years earlier. The shame over his ignorance and the pain that his actions caused, drove him to Tiberias so that he could repent at the grave site of the since deceased Rambam. The journey from Spain to Tiberias was a long and time consuming one. Along the way he wrote the spiritual masterpiece, The Gates of Repentance.
"We have a special message here," Manya explains. “The ones who have perished, you do not hear their voices. But I can tell you what their voices say. …Love one another."
Rav Berg, in a lecture on the portion Vayigash explained that the Torah is trying to teach us not to fall into "why did this happen to me" syndrome. "Using the Holocaust as an example we can learn from," Rav Berg said, "Yes it is a painful awful event. Hitler was the executor of some of the worst of all human violations. We do and should feel the pain of others when we see the pictures, and we should do all that we can to stop the next one from coming around, but to just build museums, is not going to stop history from repeating itself. Many people have a victim consciousness, and many do not change their ways. So in the portion, Yehuda the oldest brother, tells Yosef all the reasons why he [Yehuda] is a victim... telling his sad tale. But Yehuda, all this would not have happened if you had not sold Yosef into slavery and tried to cover it up with a lie to your father. But of course our victim thinking won't let us admit to our own participation in creating the situation."
The kind of participation that Rav Berg is referring to is the participation that comes from losing our consciousness. There are three levels of consciousness. Take for example why a person would not chose to steal. At the first level of consciousness he does not do it because he does not want to get caught. At the second level he does not steal because he knows that morally it is the wrong thing to do. And the third level of consciousness is that he knows that by committing the crime he will negatively affect the cosmos and violate the spiritual laws of the universe.
Maintaining the understanding that we effect each other and the future of humankind is what the Kabbalists have been trying to teach us since the time of Abraham. The Zohar teaches that when Abraham is referred to as the first man who believed in One God, what is really meant is that he was the person who understood that the world and all of its inhabitants are actually part of one unified whole.
In The Way of God, Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto says, “When either the Force of good or that of evil gains power, its qualities effect and influence all created things. When either one is subjected, on the other hand, its activity is nullified, and its attributes and effects are removed from the roots and branches of all creation.”
As Manya says, “Can we learn the lesson? Are we learning the lesson now?”
Manya’s experience highlights the paradox: In freedom, the thoughts of people were consumed with hate, and when living in hatred their thoughts were consumed with freedom.