Friday, January 19, 2007

The Two Faces of Evil

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (link):

Simplest and most profound are the words of the Talmudic sages about yetser ha-ra, the evil impulse:
Rav Assi said: At first the evil impulse is as thin as a spider's gossamer, but in the end it is as thick as a cart-rope. (Sukkah 52a)

Rava said: At first the evil impulse is call a "wayfarer", then a "guest", then finally a "master". (Sukkah 52b)
Evil has two faces. The first - turned to the outside world - is what it does to its victim. The second - turned within - is what it does to its perpetrator. Evil traps the evildoer in its mesh. Slowly but surely he or she loses freedom and becomes not evil's master but its slave.

Pharaoh is in fact (and this is rare in Tanakh) a tragic figure like Lady Macbeth, or like Captain Ahab in Melville's Moby Dick, trapped in an obsession which may have had rational beginnings, right or wrong, but which has taken hold of him, bringing not only him but those around him to their ruin. This is signaled, simply but deftly, early in next week's sedra when Pharaoh's own advisors say to him: "Let the people go so that they may worship the Lord their G-d. Do you not yet realize that Egypt is ruined?" (10: 7). But Pharaoh has left rationality behind. He can no longer hear them.

It is a compelling narrative, and helps us understand not only Pharaoh but Hitler, Stalin and other tyrants in modern times. It also contains a hint - and this really is fundamental to understanding what makes the Torah unique in religious literature - of why the Torah teaches its moral truths through narrative, rather than through philosophical or quasi-scientific discourse on the one hand, myth or parable on the other.

Compare the Torah's treatment of freewill with that of the great philosophical or scientific theories. For these other systems, freedom is almost invariably an either/or: either we are always free or we never are. Some systems assert the first. Many - those who believe in social, economic or genetic determinism, or historical inevitability - claim the second. Both are too crude to portray the inner life as it really is.

The belief that freedom is an all or nothing phenomenon - that we have it either all the time or none of the time - blinds us to the fact that there are degrees of freedom. It can be won and lost, and its loss is gradual. Unless the will is constantly exercised, it atrophies and dies. We then become objects not subjects, swept along by tides of fashion, or the caprice of desire, or the passion that becomes an obsession. Only narrative can portray the subtlety of Pharaoh's slow descent into a self-destructive madness. That, I believe, is what makes Torah truer to the human condition than its philosophical or scientific counterparts.

Pharaoh is everyman writ large. The ruler of the ancient world's greatest empire, he ruled everyone except himself. It was not the Hebrews but he who was the real slave: to his obstinate insistence that he, not G-d, ruled history. Hence the profound insight of Ben Zoma (Avot 4: 1): "Who is mighty?" Not one who can conquer his enemies but "One who can conquer himself."

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