The Pursuit of Evil

1.7       Nittai, of Arbel, taught:

Keep far from an evil neighbor;
Be not a partner with an evil person;
Never despair of retribution for the wicked.

Back in the Garden of Eden, everything was lavender and chamomile until they ate the fruit. The one fruit that God had said never to eat. The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

What we’re not told, however, is that it was not merely the Tree of Knowledge (Adam and Ever weren’t stupid), it was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We can be wise. We can be wise beyond words. But no amount of wisdom necessitates the distinction between good and evil. We can know a thousand ways to kill a man without knowing whether killing is good or bad. We can no a thousand ways to change the world but not know which of those are good and which of those are bad. The power to distinguish good from evil, however, changes everything.

It’s a common saying to choose your friends wisely. It’s even backed up by sociological findings that hanging around with bad people will influence you to do bad things yourself. And if the pursuit of Judaism is to make oneself holy, and if holiness is equitable with goodness, then it’s no wonder that we should keep far from evil folk. But what about the evils next door?

It makes me wonder then, what is evil? On my Facebook page a while back, I asked “What is sin?” The answers I got varied wildly, from wasting food and treating others poorly, to the opposite of God, to maybe even human nature itself, and even to the opposite side divided by the hypotenuse. For me, answering the question brings in a deeper layer of conflict: If love is good, but homosexuality is bad, then how can love suddenly be such a bad thing? Is sin ever not sin? Can goodness at times be sin, too? It’s almost as if the question cannot be answered at all.

So let’s assume we follow the Torah’s commandments. We are thereby good. Since the antithesis of good is evil, everything that we are not is evil. The problem with this is that it’s the same philosophy that’s been fueling prejudice for eons—if I am good, and you are not like me, then you are bad. No! It’s not true. There’s too many forms of goodness for all but one of them to be bad.

So what is evil?

There’s a principle in conducting psychological experiments known as operational definitions; that is, when conducting an experiment, you precisely define absolutely everything so that the people who read your records know exactly what you’re saying and can try to replicate the experiment. Thereby we can take “sexual orientation” from applying to “all same-sex contact throughout a person’s lifetime” (and have overestimates) to “the capacity to feel romantically attracted solely to members of the same sex” (and possibly have underestimates). But when it comes to the Bible, God uses no operational definitions. We’re left to our own on that.

My evilest neighbors are not people. My evilest neighbors are the media, the populace, the assumptions and the unrestrained impulses. They are not the evil neighbors who hack down their families with an ax (although they are, uh, most likely evil, too), but the evils next door that we’re exposed to every day through radio and television, the internet and our own small-mindedness.

My neighbor is not evil because he hates gay people. He is evil because he refuses to banish his ignorance through information. My neighbor is not evil because he refuses to learn. He is evil because he thinks he already knows. Should I keep far from my neighbor then and not give him the chance to realize his own ignorance? Should I leave him to his misinformation when I can help lead him closer toward true information? As I think of all of this, I think of Disney’s Pocahontas, of that wonderful song “Colors of the Wind,” of that quatrain most relevant here:

“You think the only people who are people
Are the people who look and think like you
But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger
You’ll learn things you never knew you never knew”

People are not evil. I refuse to believe that we are born into sin. Sin is taught and sin is learned, whatever sin might be. And sin itself can even be personified—a creeping evil, coming upon you slowly, gently at first, coercing you to believe it’s all for the best, it’s all that’s ever needed, taken upon you in tiny steps, walking side by side at first, then holding hands, then touching, kissing, making love until you don’t realize what you’ve become.

I don’t believe in the devil. But I do believe that evil has a mind of its own. We cannot reduce a bad person to the sum of his or her evil actions. But we can, and should, look past all of that to the person underneath. (That guy who cut you off at the intersection, maybe his passenger was having a heart attack; that woman who insulted your dress, maybe she’s threatened by your confidence, struggling to love herself on the inside.) Does this excuse poor choices and bad behavior? Of course not, but it lets us rise past this baseness together, helping ourselves to accept others while opening the door for them to do better. Forgiveness does not undo what’s forgiven; it allows us all to grow past what is done and help us move onto better days and better feelings.

When I say keep away from your evil neighbors, I mean this: Don’t follow in their footsteps. It echoes the second passage of the teaching, that of not taking an evil partner. We form partnerships all the time, to study, to work, to relax and enjoy the time with. But when we choose to follow the lesser path with someone, we’re making that partnership a thing of evil. When we choose to ignore the man who ignores us, we’re doing to him exactly what he’s doing to us. We have the tendency to perceive our enemies worse than they are, and they in turn have the tendency to do the same to us. If instead we step out of this cycle, out of this partnership of evil, if instead of glorifying their misdeeds and our differences, we embrace our likeness, we will have no enemies and together, we will have no evil.

All this is well and good, nevermind the pun. But what happens when our openness and our compassion is not enough? What happens when goodness cannot win out? Is it our place to punish? Is it our obligation to enact retribution? I don’t know. I like to think I don’t have to know, that it won’t have come to this, but even then, I know that hopefulness in itself can simply be ignorance. And when retribution is received, am I truly not to despair?

One of the lessons I recall learning in my first year as a teacher’s aid at my synagogue’s religious school was that, after the Israelites had crossed the Sea of Reeds, after the waves had crashed down upon the Egyptians, and after the angels in heaven cheered for this, God was not pleased. He said to them, “Why do you celebrate? Were the Egyptians not my children too?”

Is there a difference between despair and sympathy? As humans, consulting a dictionary, we can attest that there is, but again, God uses no operational definitions. It’s all up to us to decide.

I believe there is a difference. I believe there has to be. To allow myself to wholly hate someone for all that they’ve done, to take pleasure in their punishment, is no better than having done what warranted that punishment in the first place. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m naïve and ignorant. But if last week we were told to tip the scales in the favor of others, then that’s what I’ve got to do. Somewhere inside all of us, inside everything, is a spark of God’s glory. I’ll be damned if I ever let myself forget that.

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