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Posted on May 23, 2022 (5782) By Rabbi Pinchas Winston | Series: | Level:

Friday Night

Evil is so hard to fathom. We know it exists, we see people do it, and we might be guilty of it on some level as well. But the extremes to which some evil people go…how do they do it?

We’re not talking about people whose brains aren’t all working. Serial killers are often missing the part of the brain that allows a person to feel shame, which keeps most people in check. They might fantasize doing something naughty, but their sense of shame stops them short…usually. Sociopaths, missing that, can do the most horrible things as a matter of fact.

True, some of the worst dictators were just sociopaths who made it into power. But the people in question here are those who, for all appearances sake, seem to be relatively normal, until you see what they are capable of doing.

I’ve pointed out in the past that one of the reasons why Jews never saw the Holocaust coming was, because they could never imagine being so cruel to others. We humans have this uncanny ability to think that people won’t be any worse to us that we can be to them—until they have been.

Part of the problem is that we see how guilty we feel when we do the wrong thing. People have committed crimes, gotten away with them, and then given themselves in to the authorities because they could not live with what they had done.

Other people carry out terrible crimes against humanity and sleep perfectly fine at night. Hitler, ysv”z, actually convinced himself he was doing humanity a favor by eliminating Europe’s Jewish population. He expected the world to thank him for being bold enough to do what he thought the rest of the world wanted to do as well.

Stalin just thought he was doing himself a favor by purging Mother Russia of what he considered to be undesirables. And while he did that, he ate, drank, and slept like normal, albeit heavily guarded. Somehow, he felt it was in his right to do that.

Over the years, I have read and heard many different reports about the wrongdoings of certain individuals in power. The people doing the reporting seem reputable, the reports seem official and thorough, but I still have a difficult time completely believing them. It’s just too hard to believe that people can reach such low levels. And if they are as guilty as they are said to be, why are they still in power and doing the same evil things?

That’s not really a question. It is corruption, and it is rampant everywhere. The people asking the question are those who could never act similarly. Those who don’t ask the question are usually cohorts.

Shabbos Day

IT’S A MENTALITY thing. People have different mentalities. The assumption is that they don’t, but the reality is that they do. Before I left Canada, I assumed everyone was Canadian. I didn’t consciously assume it, but I didn’t think otherwise. I had been to the States, but their culture is so similar to Canadian culture that, I did not notice much of a difference other than the value of their dollar against mine.

Then I went to Israel around age 13. I had such a difficult time relating to Israeli culture, which had not yet succeeded at duplicating American culture. I could not wait to leave and get back to the way of life with which I was most familiar and enjoyed.

Is there a common mentality? There’s supposed to be. Even though every soul is unique, they are all a spark of divine light. One soul can be from a higher spiritual level than another, but each yearns to be attached to God. People have different palates, but we all need to eat for the same reason, to survive. Likewise, we all have different drives and energies in life, but we all seek, on a soul level, to living a meaningfully moral life.

So what changes from person to person that one may choose to be moral and the other, immoral? Why does one person end up helping others and another ends up hurting them? How do we get such a vast divergence in mentalities that, we can consider others to be our enemies and they consider us to be theirs?

It’s like a person who has half a million dollars locked away in a trust fund that they cannot touch under any circumstances until a specific date. They are rich, but it does not help them pay the bills while they have no money. They can barely put food on the table, or buy decent clothing. They can only brag about how one day they will be able to, while in the meantime they go from door-to-door collecting charity.

There’s a soul inside every one of us keeping us alive, but it’s influence on the way a person thinks is limited by their access to it. Inside a criminal might be the soul of a tzaddik, but it is out of reach for the person who has it. A bad experience or a terrible education might have weakened the connection between the person’s body and their soul. This allows the body’s nature to dictate their behavior, and that’s when everything can so south, deep south.

It doesn’t take much to make the point. Bad news can hijack a person’s emotion and knock their soul out of the picture. One moment they can be the nicest most laid-back person and, after the bad news, they can become a monster. You know that plea they use in court, temporary insanity? It refers to one of those moments when a person’s damaged heart led their mind and caused them to do the most animalistically ungodly thing that sometimes ends up making the Six O’clock news.

That’s why life requires some kind of system of checks and balances. Even the smartest and wisest people in society have their moments of weakness and can err. They too need something outside themself that can reflect what they are doing so they can see it as right or wrong, and course-correct if necessary.

If that is so about the smartest and wisest people, how much more so is it true about the less smart and less wise people? And they make up the vast majority of the population. It’s amazing what the average person can rationalize and believe is okay when, objectively-speaking, it is quite wrong. People say that two wrongs don’t make a right, but they don’t necessarily practice what they preach.

Seudas Shlishis

THE TRUTH OF the matter is that this is the kind of world the Jewish people allow to exist by not getting Torah wisdom to the rest of mankind. It’s harsh, but it is true. We look at Torah as a Jewish religious thing, which it is. But it is also the objective truth of life that applies to Jew and gentile alike. A non-Jew has no obligation to convert and perform more mitzvos than the seven mitzvos given to Noach. But every human was made in the image of God, and that obligates every human being to be godly to the level acceptable by God.

What does this mean? How do we do that?

That’s like what Moshe Rabbeinu asked God when he was told to build the Mishkan by himself, a seemingly impossible task. God answered him:

You busy your hands with its construction, and it will appear as if you are building it, though it will happen by itself. (Rashi, Shemos 39:33).

It’s called leverage. That’s when you use something to increase your effect beyond your own capability. The greatest thing technology has given us is tremendous leverage, the ability to do superhuman acts while still remaining quite human. Unfortunately, it has done the same for evil as well.

That’s what the Torah gives us, spiritual leverage. It greatly increases our capacity to improve mankind in ways we can never do without it, as history has repeatedly shown us…as history is again showing us. It seems as if the smarter man gets, the smarter evil gets. The exception are those people who still believe in God and try to do what they think matters most to Him to the best of their ability.

This is what the Torah is warning us about in this week’s parsha. Yes, on a simple level it is about doing the will of God and not getting punished for straying from it. On a more accurate and sophisticated level, it is telling us how the evil will grow in the world without Torah from the Jewish people and, eventually have a very punishing effect.

So when we read about the evil plans of people and how they might affect the serenity of our lives, we can’t really ask, “How can God let such people live and get away with what they get away with?” The question to be asked is, “How much Torah had to be missing from the world and for how long, before it resulted in such a corrupt society?” And, we might want to also ask, “How much longer can this go on for before it comes back to haunt us?”

I’m reminded of this message every time I clean for Shabbos. It’s a once-a-week thing for me, and I am always amazed at how much dirt can accumulate in that time by simply not cleaning. It’s also amazing, but not in a good way, how all-of-a-sudden, mold appears one day where it wasn’t before. All the evil in the world, and there is more than we know, is what results by just leaving the world void of Torah.

The parsha tells us that if we learn Torah as we should, and perform mitzvos as they are meant to be performed, then even a sword won’t cross our land. It means we won’t even have to experience other nations at war, especially if they are not at war against us. Even friendly nations won’t need to involve us in their military enterprises.

Similarly, when we serve God as we’re supposed to, even if the world does go off track, it won’t affect us the same way. If we take care of our part, He’ll take care of the rest of the world and make it that their affairs won’t have to become ours.

That was easier to do before social media. Now world news is so intrusive, unless you cut yourself off completely, which very few do today. But those who do have an easier time of remembering the most important mantra of all: Ain od milvado—there is none other than God.

Melave Malkah

THIS HAS INSPIRED me to start something new that may interest others. I call it an Ain Od Milvado Group (just my wife and I for now), and you can start your own.

The words come from the following verse:

You have been shown, in order to know that God, He is God; there is none else besides Him. (Devarim 4:35)

As simple and as easy as this sounds, it is far from it. Any time we fear anything other than God, we are failing at it. Any time we feel the need to earn favor in someone else’s eyes to get ahead, we are failing at it. Any time we make more hishtadalus—effort—to make something happen or stop it from happening than bitachon—trust in God—instructs, we are failing at it. It means we believe that things other than God have power.

We don’t mean to. A believer would rather believe completely in God than partially. But belief is a multi-step process that requires information and integration of ideas. Talking about things reinforces them. Talking about them with others reinforces them more deeply. Examining them and explaining them and thinking about how to apply them, puts it in your heart. That is the goal of the above verse. God showed us what He did to move our belief in His oneness from the level of intellect alone to that of the heart. Hence the support group idea.

But there is another facet to this as well. Not only is the mitzvah to believe that God is the only power in Creation, but the mitzvah is to make Him that as well. We do that every time we act as if it is true, and even if focus on the idea and discuss it.

A profanation of God’s name is called a Chillul Hashem, from the word challal, which is a void. A Chillul Hashem is anything that causes the light of God to be withdrawn from Creation, leaving behind a spiritual void that evil can fill.

A Kiddush Hashem does the opposite. It is any act that draws the light of God into Creation, pushing the evil out from the world. It can be an act, a word, or even a thought. Ain od milvado also means, make it happen that He is the only power, by making that reality clear to yourself and others. Another important reason for an Ain Od Milvado group.

What an easy and practical way to fulfill one of the most important mitzvos we have. The best part of all, it will help us rise above the world in which evil is allowed to make it look like it is its own boss.