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The Soul of Evil

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The soul of evil

And G-d said to Moses: “Come to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his servants in order that I might show My signs in their midst…”

Exodus 10:1

Why does it say, “Come to Pharaoh”? It should have said, “Go to Pharaoh” …. But G-d brought Moses into a chamber within a chamber, to the… supernal and mighty serpent from which many levels evolve…which Moses feared to approach himself…

Zohar, part II, 34a

Among the fifty-three sections of the Torah, several stand out as milestones in its narrative of the history of humanity and of the people of Israel. The section of Bereishit recounts G-d’s creation of the world in six days and Adam’s banishment from Eden; Lech Lecha describes Abraham’s journeys to bring the truth of the One G-d to a pagan world; Yitro includes the revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Torah to Israel; and so on.

A list of pivotal Torah sections would certainly include the section of Bo (Exodus 10–13), which tells of the exodus of the children of Israel from the land of Egypt. The Exodus marked our birth as a people,[1] and we are enjoined to “Remember the day that you went out of Egypt, all the days of your life.”[2] Indeed, when G-d revealed Himself to us at Sinai, He introduced Himself not as the Creator of heaven and earth, but as “…your G-d, who has taken you out of the land of Egypt”[3]! For the defining element of our relationship with G-d is not that we are beings created by Him (of which there are many others in G-d’s world), but that we are free beings—beings in whom He has invested of His own infinity and eternity, beings empowered by Him to transcend the constraints of the material world and the limits of their own natures.

The Name

The Torah considers the name of a thing to be the articulation of its essence.
Bo means “come.” The name derives from the section’s opening verse, in which G-d instructs Moses to “come to Pharaoh” to warn him of the seventh plague (the plague of locusts) and once again deliver the divine demand that the ruler of Egypt set free the children of Israel.

The Torah considers the name of a thing to be the articulation of its essence;[4] certainly, such is the case with the Torah’s own names for itself and its components. The name of a Torah section always conveys its primary message and the common theme of all its subsections and narratives.[5]

One would therefore expect the section of the Exodus to be called “Exodus,” “Freedom,” or some other name that expresses the significance of this defining event in the history of Israel. Instead, it derives its name from Moses’ coming to Pharaoh—an event that seems but a preliminary to the Exodus. Indeed, the concept of the leader of Israel coming to Pharaoh’s palace to petition him to let the Jewish people go—implying that the Jews are still subservient to Egypt and its ruler—seems the very antithesis of the Exodus!

The phrase “Come to Pharaoh” also evokes much discussion in the commentaries. Why does G-d tell Moses to come to Pharaoh? Would it not have been more appropriate to say, “Go to Pharaoh”?

The Zohar explains that Moses feared confronting Pharaoh inside his palace, at the hub of his power. (On earlier occasions, Moses had been directed to meet Pharaoh in other places, such as on the king’s morning excursions to the Nile[6]). So G-d promised Moses that He Himself would accompany him to Pharaoh. The word “come” is thus to be understood in the sense of “come with me”; G-d is saying to Moses, “Come with Me to Pharaoh.”

The Zohar goes on to say that Moses is being invited by G-d to meet with the innermost essence of Egypt’s ruler and god. Thus we have another meaning of the phrase “Come to Pharaoh—“come” in the sense of “enter within.” To liberate the people of Israel from the “great and mighty serpent,” it was not enough to merely go to Pharaoh; Moses had to enter into the core of Pharaoh, into the very root of his power.

My River

Self-centeredness might seem a benign sin compared to the acts of cruelty and depravity to which man can sink, but it is the source and essence of them all.
Who is Pharaoh and what does he represent? What is his “innermost essence”? Why did Moses dread confronting Pharaoh in his palace if G-d Himself had sent him there? And how does “coming into Pharaoh” hold the key for the Exodus from Egypt and the liberation of the soul of man?

The prophet Ezekiel describes Pharaoh as “the great serpent who couches in the midst of his streams, who says: ‘My river is my own, and I have made myself.’”[7] In other words, the evil of Pharaoh is not defined by the promiscuity that characterized the pagan cults of Egypt; not by his enslavement and torture of millions; not by his bathing in the blood of slaughtered children; but by his egocentrism, by his regarding his own self as the source and standard for everything.

For this is the root of all evil. Self-centeredness might seem a benign sin compared to the acts of cruelty and depravity to which man can sink, but it is the source and essence of them all. When a person considers the self and its needs to be the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong, his morality—and he might initially be the most moral of men—is devoid of significance. Such a person is ultimately capable of committing any act, should he regard it as crucial to himself or to his self-defined vision of reality.

Ultimately, every good deed is an act of self-abnegation, and every evil deed is an act of self-deification. When a person does a good deed—whether it involves contributing a single coin to charity or devoting an entire lifetime to a G-dly cause—he is saying: there is something greater than myself to which I am committed. When a person violates the divine will—whether with a minor transgression or with the most heinous of crimes—he is saying: “My river is my own, and I have made myself”; good is what is good to me, evil is what is contrary to my will; I am the master of my reality, I am god.

The Secret

It is not the ego that is evil, but the divorcing of the ego from its source.
So is the ego evil? Is this fundamental component of our soul an alien implant that must be uprooted and discarded in our quest for goodness and truth?

In the final analysis, it is not. For the cardinal law of reality is that “There is none else besides Him”[8]—that nothing is contrary to, or even separate from, the Creator and Source of all. The ego, the sense of self with which we are born, also derives from G-d; indeed, it is a reflection of the divine “ego.” Because G-d knows Himself as the only true existence, we, who were created in His image, possess an intimation of His “sense of self” in the form of our own concept of the self as the core of all existence.

It is not the ego that is evil, but the divorcing of the ego from its source. When we recognize our own ego as a reflection of G-d’s “ego” and make it subservient to His, it becomes the driving force in our efforts to make the world a better, more G-dly place. But the same ego, severed from its divine moorings, begets the most monstrous of evils.

When G-d commanded Moses to “Come to Pharaoh,” Moses had already been going to Pharaoh for many months. But he had been dealing with Pharaoh in his various manifestations: Pharaoh the pagan, Pharaoh the oppressor of Israel, Pharaoh the self-styled god. Now he was being told to enter into the essence of Pharaoh, into the soul of evil. Now he was being told to penetrate beyond the evil of Pharaoh, beyond the mega-ego that insists “I have created Myself,” to confront Pharaoh’s quintessence: the naked “I” that stems from the very “self” of G-d.

Moses did not fear the evil of Pharaoh. If G-d had sent him, G-d would protect him. But when G-d told him to enter into the essence of Pharaoh, he was terrified. How can a human being behold such a pure manifestation of the divine truth? A manifestation so sublime that it transcends good and evil and is equally the source of both?

Said G-d to Moses: “Come to Pharaoh.” Come with Me, and together we will enter the great serpent’s palace. Together we will penetrate the self-worship that is the heart of evil. Together we will discover that there is neither substance nor reality to evil—that all it is, is the misappropriation of the divine in man.

If this truth is too terrifying for a human being to confront on his own, come with Me, and I will guide you. I will take you into the innermost chamber of Pharaoh’s soul, until you come face to face with evil’s most zealously guarded secret: that it does not, in truth, exist.

When you learn this secret, no evil will ever defeat you. When you learn this secret, you and your people will be free.

Based on an address by the Rebbe, Shabbat Bo, 5752 (January 11,  1992)[9]

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber


[1]. Ezekiel 16. Cf. Mechilta, Beshalach 14:30; Midrash Tehillim 107:4; Yalkut Shimoni on Deuteronomy 4:34; et al.

[2]. Deuteronomy 16:3—a commandment we fulfill by reciting the third section of the Shema (Numbers 15:37-41) every morning and evening (see Passover Haggadah, s.v. Amar Rabbi Elazar; see also Talmud, Pesachim 116b).

[3]. The first of the Ten Commandments, Exodus 20:2.

[4]. See Genesis 2:19; Midrashim and commentaries on verse; Tanya, part II, ch. 1.

[5]. Often, the name of a Torah section seems to merely derive from its opening verses, with little visible connection to its overall contents. For example, Chayei Sarah (“The Life of Sarah”) actually begins with Sarah’s death and burial, and goes on to recount events occurring after her demise. But an in-depth examination and analysis of a section’s contents always reveal that its common theme and axial principle are expressed by its name (see Likkutei Sichot, vol. V, p. 57ff.; vol. XV, p. 145ff.; vol. XVI, p. 200ff.; et al. See also The Human Story in Twelve Words, WIR, vol. IX, no. 15).

[6]. Cf. Exodus 7:15, 8:17, et al.

[7]. Ezekiel 29:3.

[8]. Deuteronomy 4:35.

[9]. Sefer HaSichot 5752, vol. I, pp. 280ff.

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