On the Non-Existence of Evil

non existence of evil

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Chassidism, served as reader of the weekly Torah section in his synagogue. One year, Rabbi Schneur Zalman was away from home on the Shabbat on which the section of Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26-29) was read. In the Rebbe’s absence, someone else did the reading.

Ki Tavo includes the “Rebuke” (tochacha), a harsh description of the calamities destined to befall the Jewish people should they forsake the commandments of the Torah. Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s young son DovBer[1] was so greatly affected by the curses of the Rebuke that he fell ill. Three weeks later, when Yom Kippur approached, he was still so weak that his father was hesitant in allowing him to fast.

When the youngster was asked, “Why did the reading affect you so? Don’t you hear the Rebuke every year?” he replied, “When father reads, one hears only blessings, not curses.”[2]

Another Two Stories

Rabbi Akiva taught: A person should always say: “Everything that G-d does, He does for the good.”
“From the Supernal,” proclaims the prophet Jeremiah, in the midst of his lament over the destruction of the Holy Temple and the exile of Israel, “do not emerge both evil and good.”[3] This is a basic tenet of the Jewish faith: G-d is the essence of good, and since everything in existence derives solely from Him, evil has no true existence. There is only “revealed good” and “hidden good.” What we experience as “evil” is, in truth, hidden good—good that we, because of the limits of our perception, are incapable of perceiving as such.

The Talmud cites two stories that illustrate this point. The first involves Rabbi Akiva:

Rabbi Akiva taught: A person should always say: “Everything that G-d does, He does for the good.” Rabbi Akiva was once traveling, when he arrived in a certain town. He asked for lodgings and was refused. Said he: “Everything that G-d does, He does for the good,” and went to spend the night in a field.

He had with him a rooster, a donkey and a lamp. A wind came and extinguished the lamp, a cat came and ate the rooster, a lion came and ate the donkey. Said he: “Everything that G-d does, He does for good.” That night, an army came and took the entire town captive. Said Rabbi Akiva to his disciples: “Did I not tell you that everything that G-d does, He does for good?”[4] (If the lamp had been lit, the army would have seen me; if the donkey would have brayed or the rooster would have called, the army would have come and captured me.[5] )

The other story is about Nachum Ish Gam Zu:

Why was he called Nachum Ish Gam Zu (“Nachum This Too”)[6]? Because whatever happened to him, he would say: “This, too, is for the good.” Once the Jews wanted to send a gift to the [Roman] Emperor. “Who will go?” they asked. “Let Nachum go, for he is well acquainted with miracles.” They sent along with him a chest full of precious stones and pearls. On the way, he stayed at an inn. During the night, the innkeepers took the contents of the chest and filled it with earth. In the morning, when Nachum saw [what happened], he said: “This, too, is for good.”

When he arrived there, he gave the chest to the king. When the king saw that it was filled with earth, he wanted to kill all [the Jews] and said: “The Jews are mocking me!” Said Nachum: “This, too, is for good.”

Elijah the Prophet appeared disguised as one of the king’s ministers and said: “Perhaps this is the dust of their father Abraham, who would throw dust that turned into spears and straw that turned into arrows[7]?” There was a country which [the Roman armies] could not conquer; they tried [the earth brought by Nachum] and succeeded in conquering it. So they took Nachum into the Emperor’s treasury, filled his chest with precious stones and pearls, and sent him off with great honor.[8]

The Difference in Outlooks Between Rabbi Akiva and Nachum Ish Gam Zu

Nachum Ish Gam Zu would say, “This, too, is for good.” Not only am I confident that good shall result from this, but I also perceive this, the event itself, as positive.
There is a significant difference between Rabbi Akiva’s experience and that of Nachum Ish Gam Zu. Both reacted to seemingly negative events with the confidence that G-d is doing them good rather than evil. But in the case of Rabbi Akiva, the events themselves remained negative: he was left without a roof over his head, in the dark, and he lost his rooster and donkey. The value of these negative events was only that they prevented a greater evil—falling into captivity. Seen in this light, they do not constitute a calamity but a salvation. The fact remains, however, that these experiences were not themselves good, only the implements of good.

In the case of Nachum Ish Gam Zu, the “negative” event itself was revealed as a positive occurrence. The earth the thieves exchanged for the contents of his chest was more valuable than what they took, achieving far more than would a simple gift of gems to an emperor whose treasury was already filled with the same. The only possibly negative element in the whole affair is the anxiety and fear a person of lesser faith might have experienced; Nachum, of course, experienced nothing of the sort, since at no time did he doubt that only good transpires in G-d’s world. Upon waking in the morning and finding the chest filled with earth, he proceeded to the palace to deliver his gift, confident that all would be shown to have been for good.

This difference between the outlooks of Rabbi Akiva and Nachum Ish Gam Zu is also evident in the words they used to express their faith in the goodness of G-d. Rabbi Akiva said, “Everything that G-d does, He does for good.” This implies that while a person might experience certain things as bad, he knows that they are for the sake of a greater good—a good that justifies the negative experience. It does not include the recognition that the event itself is good. Rabbi Akiva did not say that “Everything that G-d does is for good”—meaning that the things He does are positive—only that “Everything G-d does, He does for good”—that G-d’s doing of these things is for a positive end, even if the things themselves are less than good.

But Nachum Ish Gam Zu would say, “This, too, is for good.” Not only am I confident that good shall result from this, but I also perceive this, the event itself, as positive.[9]

Two Generations

The difference between them reflects the different spiritual environments in which the two sages lived.

The languages in which Nachum and Rabbi Akiva expressed their faith in the ultimate goodness of G-d are indicative of their different perceptions.
Rabbi Akiva lived a generation after the destruction of the (second) Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple) in Jerusalem, which had served as the center of G-d’s manifest presence in the physical world. His was a time of galut—a time of spiritual darkness, a time in which the divine face recedes from view and the divine providence is obscured by hardship, strife and tragedy.[10] Under such conditions, a person is incapable of perceiving the positive essence of every event. At most, he can affirm that there is more to reality than meets the eye—that while an event might remain negative in his perception, he can appreciate that it leads to a greater good. But to comprehend that the event itself is positive is beyond the capacity of one who inhabits a reality that so blatantly belies this truth. He might believe that it is so, but he cannot envision it or relate to it in any way.

Nachum Ish Gam Zu, on the other hand, who was one of Rabbi Akiva’s teachers, was of the previous generation—a generation that experienced the revelation of G-dliness that was the Beit Hamikdash. To them, the quintessential goodness of everything in G-d’s world was close to the surface, and the illusion of evil readily penetrable by a firm faith and unwavering trust in G-d.

The languages in which Nachum and Rabbi Akiva expressed their faith in the ultimate goodness of G-d are indicative of their different perceptions. The Talmud quotes Nachum as proclaiming, “This, too, is for good” (gam zu l’tovah) in the Holy Tongue, while Rabbi Akiva’s words, “Everything that G-d does, He does for good,” (kol d’avid rachmana l’tav avid) are quoted in Aramaic.

The Holy Tongue is the language with which G-d created the world—the language whose words and letters embody the divine essence of creation. A word in the Holy Tongue is much more than an agreed-upon appendage by which to refer to an object or phenomenon; rather, it represents the particular configuration of divine energy that supplies that object or phenomenon with being and life. Words spoken in the Holy Tongue imply a perception of a thing’s essence. Nachum, who lived in an era of divine revelation, was able to say gam zu l’tovah—to express the ultimate nature of every reality.

Aramaic, on the other hand, while closely related to Hebrew, represents a departure from the Holy Tongue’s clear and concise definition of a thing’s essence. When Rabbi Akiva proclaimed the ultimate goodness of everything G-d does, he did so in Aramaic, for his was a more limited perception, a perception veiled by the encroaching galut.[11]

Singing in the Dark

While the (first) Beit Hamikdash was being consumed by flames, Assaf (one of the Levites who served in the Holy Temple) was composing a psalm:

A song to Assaf:
O G-d,
Aliens have entered Your estate
They have defiled Your Sanctuary
They have laid Jerusalem in heaps…[12]

Asks the Midrash:

Should not the verse have said “a wail to Assaf,” “a keen to Assaf,” “a lament to Assaf”? Why does it say “a song to Assaf”? But this is analogous to a king who built a nuptial home for his son, beautifully plastered, inlaid and decorated. Then the son strayed off to an evil life. So the king came to the nuptial canopy, tore down the tapestries and broke the rails, upon which the prince’s tutor took a flute and began to play. Those who saw him asked: “The king is overturning the nuptial canopy of his son, and you sit and sing?” Said he to them: “I am singing because the king overturned his son’s nuptial canopy and did not vent his wrath upon his son.” So, too, was asked of Assaf: “G-d destroyed the Temple and Sanctuary, and you sit and sing?” Replied he: “I am singing because G-d vent His wrath upon wood and stone and did not vent his wrath upon Israel.”[13]

This reflects an “Everything that G-d does, He does for good” conception of evil and suffering, as experienced by Rabbi Akiva. The destruction of the Beit Hamikdash is a terrible tragedy; but it is a positive event in the sense that it prevented the destruction of the Jewish people.

This is the ultimate level of perception of which we are capable in galut: the understanding that despite how terrible and tragic something is in our experience, we know that there is a higher truth, a greater good which it serves. We might eventually discover this greater good, or perhaps never learn what it is; nevertheless, our faith in the goodness of G-d enables us to bear the hardship and pain of the perceived evil in our lives. But we are incapable of recognizing, or even conceiving of, the intrinsic goodness of the “evil” itself.

But there will come a time when the veil of galut will lift, when the divine essence of existence will shine forth, unobscured by the shell of darkness that encases it today. On that day we shall proclaim, “This, too, is for good.” In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “I shall thank You, G-d, for having afflicted me,”[14] for the quintessential goodness of the “affliction” itself will be revealed.
Based on an address by the Rebbe, Av 20, 5711 (August 22, 1951)[15]

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber

[1], Rabbi DovBer (1773-1827) succeeded his father as Rebbe and leader of the Chabad Chassidic movement upon the latter’s passing in 1812.

[2]. Hayom Yom, quote for Elul 17.

[3]. Lamentations 3:38.

[4]. Talmud, Berachot 60b.

[5]. Rashi, ibid.

[6]. Gam zu (‘this too”) is a play on the word Gimzu, the name of Nachum’s hometown in the foothills of Judah.

[7]. When he fought against the Four Kings—see Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 43:4.

[8]. Talmud, Taanit 21a.

[9]. In Hebrew, the word “this” (zeh or zu) connotes an explicit and directly perceived reality (Rashi on Exodus 15:2 and Numbers 30:2. See The Awareness Factor, WIR vol. IV, no. 1).

[10]. Rabbi Akiva lived in the time of the failed revolt against the Romans led by Bar Kochba (whom Rabbi Akiva had initially believed to be the Messiah); in a time when the study of Torah and the practice of Judaism were outlawed by the Romans and many Jews were tortured and killed. Rabbi Akiva himself met a martyr’s death in the year 134 c.e. (65 years after the destruction of the Holy Temple).

[11]. Rabbi Akiva and Nachum’s different conceptions of “suffering” is also reflected in the exchange between them related in the Jerusalem Talmud, Pe’ah 8:8.

[12]. Psalms, psalm 79.

[13]. Midrash Rabbah, Eichah 4:14.

[14]. Isaiah 12:1.

[15]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. III, pp. 393-395; Hitvaaduyot 5751, vol. II, pp. 267-274.



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11 years ago

This is a beautiful reminder. However, as it concerns our many recent horrific tragedies, such as Sandy Hook, it is difficult for us to see the good in those events, even as being for the ultimate good. The only thing I can possibly think of is that sometimes things have to get worse before they get better. Do we have to hit bottom as a society in order to bring about Moshiach?

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