This essay was first published in 2007, long before the violent invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022. These reflections by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz address the nature of evil and our responsibility as Jews to confront it head-on. While this essay is not about the war in Ukraine, it is as apt and prescient now as it was fifteen years ago.
For individuals and groups alike, hope tends to overshadow experience, becoming a fact of life rather than its greatest aspiration. But in truth, hope clashes — and often unpleasantly so — with reality. One example is the modern concept of progress, which says that humanity is improving with time. The same holds true for the prevailing notion that human beings are essentially good. In this view, unwelcome events are aberrations and mishaps. Evil does not exist in reality; it is simply a figment of the imagination.
But we all know that evil does exist. It is a very real power, both in an historical sense and in everyday life. Throughout history, devil worship has never ceased; the devil has merely changed names and titles. Evil has as many worshippers as ever, and the Biblical notion that “the desire in man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21) is as true as it ever was. Almost everyone in this world has his share of evil.
This does not, however, imply that everybody is completely evil, or that we must accept evil. It means we must be aware that, as humans, we are, to some degree, prone to evil; therefore we must be prepared for it and take the required steps to fight it. Ignoring evil will not make it go away. By doing so, we will find ourselves faced with so many more kinds of evil, against which we will be completely helpless. Day after day, we are bombarded by astonishing stories of theft, embezzlement and corruption committed by individuals and organizations whom we hold to higher standards. But nobody is immune to the forces of evil. Only if we accept evil as a fact of life will we be able to take the necessary precautions against it.
Evil is not a matter of the past. It is not something that happened once upon a time and no longer exists. War, mass murder, and genocide remain a part of our society, as do deadly acts of terror committed in the name of equality, fraternity and God. These things can happen very close to home, or in more remote places, but in either case, ignoring them does not cure them. Like a physical malady, ignoring evil makes it worse and enables it to rear its ugly head again and again.
To truly prevent evil from growing stronger, we cannot simply write letters to the editor of our local newspaper, expressing our shock and horror at the goings-on in our world. The human struggle against evil requires a tremendous input of resources on our part. Medications that cure deadly diseases do not always taste sweet; many of them even have negative side effects. But dangerous, deadly conditions must be combated using every possible strategy.
There are many reasons to ignore evil. Not all of them have the best of intentions behind them — for example, when evil is a convenience for a certain group or individual. International diplomatic considerations often motivate people to ignore, forget, and even forgive evil deeds. In the same vein, many dictatorships are supported by the world’s most advanced democratic regimes because they are considered to be barriers against worse evils.
Thus, we find ourselves in an eternal battle between relative good and absolute evil. War may not be a nice sweet occupation for human beings, but in some cases, avoiding war means yielding to evil. Economic and political boycott, while quite unpleasant, may prove helpful in preventing massacres and wars. To once again quote the book of Genesis (4:7), “sin crouches at the door” — at practically everyone’s door. It is a great temptation, and if we allow it to enter, it will overcome us, whether we wish for it to do so or not. Seeing the picture in this way — not as a pessimist, but as a realist — gives us a different perspective on how to deal with national, international, and private affairs.
Educating people on how to cope with evil is one element that is sorely missing in our pedagogy system. So many refuse to even admit to the existence of the dark side. Knowledge and awareness of the existence of evil should be a required element of both public and private education, from pre-school to adulthood. While we all may yearn for nothing but sweetness and light in our lives, we will always find one bully trying to beat others down — or, on a broader scale, a dictator willing to kill others to attain his own goals, or a terrorist who believes that the road to heaven is paved with corpses.
Raising awareness of evil is not education for pessimism or for the notion of all-present evil. Human beings and societies, generally, have many positive aspects as well, and they must not be ignored. It is a simple fact of life that most people have more good in them than evil. Even on the national and international level, there are many good intentions for solving the very real needs and problems of the world.
The best way to combat evil is to promote good. This, too, cannot be accomplished by ignoring evil. The battle requires an enormous commitment on our part. We cannot simply sit and wait for a good angel to intervene. There is nothing wrong with believing that guardian angels keep an eye on us, but we must remember that ultimately we are responsible for most of the work — and from time to time, we can accept a little assistance from the angels.