An Essay for Today

Confronting Evil

We always hope that each new year will be better than the last. As the future usually continues what came before it, knowing the past prepares and instructs us about what may unfold.

The past half-year has been characterized by too many – and by far too conspicuous – events of evil. Evil is no surprise, especially concerning human beings; God both describes and complains about humanity in Genesis (8:21): “For the inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” In nature, too, there are mishaps and disasters, but evil seems to be a uniquely human attribute. There are, however, different degrees of evil: from minor manifestations of malice to large-scale outbursts of extreme wickedness.

Blatant manifestations of evil have always existed.  Many happened in remote places, so that humanity could easily ignore them. Recently, however, evil began to surge at the heart of the Western world, and now it can no longer be ignored. The acts of evil, terrorism and killing of the past year were neither spontaneous nor random: they were deliberate, organized, systematic evil. Such evil goes far beyond the harm done to individuals; it also spreads fear and terror over entire populations.

The message is clear. We can no longer afford to just “sigh and cry” over evil (see Ezekiel 9:4) while remaining passive and contenting ourselves with complaints about the situation. Quite the contrary: if we allow this state of affairs to continue, it will only deteriorate. History teaches us that ignoring evil only allows it to grow. More than one large-scale war could have been prevented had people stood up against the more minor acts of wickedness.

Evil is not a mere abstraction. Like illness, it is concrete. It is an attack. Alongside the active perpetrators of evil, there are also those who enjoy its results and gloat over the victims’ suffering. More than that, many decent human beings often find – perhaps precisely because they are decent humans – explanations and justifications for evil that make it possible for it to thrive.

Yet while evil is noticeable and prominent in the world – in truth, it is only a small portion of reality. Most people do not want evil, do not participate in it, and do not enjoy it. But people live within societies, nations and states, and tend to expect the “establishment” to do the work for them. Besides, doing good is usually a lot less thrilling than perpetrating evil.

The will to fight evil must therefore come from within each of us. Poverty, ignorance, pain, and malicious preaching may account for the dissemination of evil; but no explanation of evil can possibly justify it. Passive protest is, therefore, not sufficient; it is not enough to just hope for the day in which “death will be swallowed up forever” (Isaiah 25:8) and “the unclean spirit” will “pass out of the land” (Zechariah 13:2). Real action must be taken, both to prevent evil and to destroy it.

We have the power and the ability to deal with some of the reasons why evil thrives. It is our duty to seek, with much more zest, the means for uprooting evil to the greatest extent possible. And we must do so, especially, in those places where it is more openly manifest. It seems that this task will continue to be relevant not only in the coming year, but also in the years that will follow.

This essay was originally published as a letter from Rabbi Steinsaltz to readers in 2016.

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