It sounds like a good thing at first, getting to know good and evil. After all, if you don’t know what they are, how can you choose to do the good and shun the evil? Even though God warned Adam not to eat from the tree, and warned him about death as a consequence, at least he became wiser for it, right?
Wronggggg. If you start from nothing, like the average person since, then getting to know the difference between good and evil is a must. But if you started from the level of emes v’sheker—true and false—as had been the case with Adam and Chava, then coming to know good and evil is a demotion.
The difference is almost audible just from saying the words. The difference is fundamental. Emes v’sheker are absolutes that leave no room for any doubt. Tov v’ra—good and evil—are really the product of doubt, what you get when you add it to emes and sheker. Good and evil can be very subjective, which is why even Hitler, ysv”z, rationalized that he was doing mankind a favor by exterminating its Jews. That’s why the Gemora says that the source of Haman in the Torah, a descendant of Amalek, was the eating from the Aitz HaDa’as Tov v’Ra (Chullin 139b).
Now what? Are we stuck with our situation until Moshiach comes and rids the world of all doubt? Can we remove the doubt from the equation and return back to emes v’sheker once again?
Of course. We already do it on different levels. There are many things we once had doubts about in life but which we cleared up after doing some research and learning. Not all doubts are beyond resolution if, a person cares enough to work hard enough to get rid of them. Once they do that, they are able to move up to the level of true-and-false, and enjoy living with such clarity.
This is what God told us in last week’s parsha. “I showed you to know…” that God is God, and that there are none others besides Him. Supposedly, we saw enough at that time in history to eliminate any doubt about God and divine providence. But we doubted Him anyhow. How did that work?
The problem, of course, is that it was kind of a one-time thing. God made a huge and masterful entry into history, stayed around for about 1,000 years, then went on radio silence. Prophecy ended, though we had already stopped heeding it. Then all the bad things started to happen, and happen, and happen. Other religions rose to prominence, and even idol worship had its heyday.
The number one reason people doubt God is that sometimes He allows things to happen that people assume He wouldn’t, if He were actually there. But as the Gemora says, God shows real strength when He keeps silent to things He hates the most, for the sake of history. People press His hot buttons all day long, and He just remains cool to them. It’s enough to make an atheist or agnostic out of just about anyone.
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THERE IS ANOTHER way. It’s the opposite of Amalek and doubt, kind of. The real opposite of course is intellectual certainty. But clearly that is not very likely in many cases, and even the Talmud ends up with questions it can’t answer. That is why so much halachah tends to be stringent, to make sure we cover all the halachic angles. We’re only lenient when we’re clear that we can be.
It’s called yiras Shamayim—fear of God, which Moshe Rabbeinu addresses directly in this week’s parsha:
Now Israel, what does God your God ask of you? Only to fear God… (Devarim 10:12)
There is a reason why we call people who adhere to halachah without wavering, especially when it is uncomfortable not to, God-fearing people. It might seem as if they are really only punishment fearing people, but that is not the case. They might fear punishment too, like the rest of us, but that is not the essence of their fear of God. Respect is.
Respect is an interesting thing. It is an attitude of admiration or esteem for something, and it is really the basis of any good relationship, even more than love. Many people who love one another end up breaking up because they lack mutual respect. But though people who respect one another may not actually feel love, their relationship will last forever. The strongest relationships have both aspects, love and respect.
Respect is so important to us that we even need to have it for ourselves. We don’t talk about self-love and self-fear as much as we talk about self-respect. It is the basis of any good and meaningful life, something that can’t be faked and must be earned. Everything else we do in life is built upon it.
Because we all need to feel validated. We need to feel that our lives mean something. We need to feel real, and that often means being noticed for good things. People only resort to bad to get negative respect in desperation when they cannot be respected for good. They do fearful things to make a difference in life, albeit the worst way possible. But some people will take any kind of fear rather than live with a feeling of non-existence.
This is not God, of course. He doesn’t need anyone’s respect, not even His own. Any respect He wants from us is for our good. We need to respect Him for Who He is, so that we will not falter in our devotion to Him and His ways. Fear of punishment, believe it or not, does not keep people religious. Over time it makes them run the other direction, which has happened to millions of once-religious people. They’ll latch on to the first thing that casts doubt on God’s existence and His providence to jump ship, as many have already done.
The same thing is true with fear. People can only live with so much fear before they do something drastic, like rebel and go in the other direction. Excessive fear leads to resentment, and resentment leads to rebellion, as it so often has over the ages.
But respect stands the test of time. People who have maintained respect for God and all that He has done, and continues to do each moment, stick with Him through thick-and-thin. Nothing upsets their belief or causes them to waver in their faith. They replace intellectual and religious doubt with emunah—faith. This is how they turn tov into emes and ra back into sheker. This is how they counter Amalek and remove him from the equation.
THE THREE WEEKS between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av are the dangerous period for the Jewish people. Kabbalistically, it is the time of year that God withdraws His light enough to make it dangerous to be a Jew, even a righteous one. That’s why our enemies were able to destroy the Temple and exile our people during this period climaxing with Tisha B’Av.
But those lights, kabbalistically, are supposed to begin their return around the 10th of Av. It’s supposed to be a period of rectification overlapping a period of consolation. Some tragedies have occurred during this time because people on vacation took unnecessary risks, or were just vulnerable to accidents. But most of the time, Bein HaZmanim passes pleasantly for those who wait all year for it, and even for those who don’t.
Not this one, though. The first week after Tisha B’Av, which itself passed relatively quietly thank God, the news has been very hard and sad. Weird accidents, which are always signs of more overt divine providence, have resulted in sudden deaths and incomprehensible injuries. It has become an extremely painful period of mourning for the families involved and the nation as a whole. This was followed by a terrorist attack on a bus returning from the Kosel at 1:30 in the morning on Motzei Shabbos. From the Kosel…and at 1:30 in the morning!
We are quick to look for explanations. It is our automatic response. This was very bad. God is very good. How do the two work together?
We have some answers because we are no strangers to the questions, after thousands of years of going through similar crises. By now we are fully aware of what God can do, or at least allow to happen, to His treasured nation when He decides it is what must occur according to the bigger picture.
When this happens, Amalek circles like a hungry vulture watching its prey struggle through the desert below. We just don’t know. There are so many details that are not shared with us at this time, and this creates doubt, first intellectual and then emotional, and that is when Amalek swoops in for the kill.
It says that just before Moshiach comes, God shakes the world out like a dirty garment, and only those strong in faith remain hanging on. Last week’s incidents were a real shake-up. That is always the test of a Jew, but particularly towards the end of history. If you look down, you will see Amalek standing below with opened arms to catch whoever falls. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. But, the bigger the emunah, the harder it is to fall, and you don’t want to fall, not now, not so close to the “big reveal.”
Ain Od Milvado, Part 14
THE KLI YAKAR explains on Parashas Yisro that people once thought that there were at least two gods, one who did the good and one who did the bad. It was only once that Yisro saw that the same God who did all the good for the Jewish people also destroyed Egypt, that he decided to convert to Judaism.
The Greeks and Romans were worse. They had a god for just about every natural force in the world. Today, people have gone to the other extreme, having no god for anything. Or at least they say they don’t. The truth is, they do worship something. They just don’t call all that adoration and sacrifice for it “worship.”
But every time a person relies on something else other than God to save them, it is a form of idol worship. It’s okay to believe your fate is in the hands of your bank manager, provided that you know it is really just God working through them. It’s fine to be very relieved that you can pay for something you need with a credit card and in multiple payments, as long as you understand that this was God’s way of giving you a break.
Technology is powerful, but its power comes from God. Remember the Tower of Bavel? It was a technological breakthrough in its time, even built according to kabbalistic specification. It actually could have worked, and would have worked, had not God brought it down. He gives us technology to improve the world and enhance our appreciation of Him. When it becomes the reason to turn our backs on Him, then He takes it away from us.
This does not mean you will see a huge hand come down from the sky and yank some massive plug from some massive outlet. But for all intents-and-purposes, that’s what happens.
It could be an overloading of the system that causes massive blackouts and systemic failure. It could be an EMP attack by some enemy nation that crashes the entire electrical grid. It could be a solar flare that does the same thing, or some other event that we haven’t even considered at this point. As the expression goes, “God has many messengers.”
Including us. Let’s say someone has wronged us, resulting in our own inner turmoil. We’d like to give the offender a piece of our mind, but we know he was just a shaliach—messenger for God. As a result, part of us, the hurt part, argues that we should go over and tell the person what they have done to us. The other part says, “If God didn’t want that to happen to you, it wouldn’t have. If they wronged you, it is between them and God, not you and them.”
What about the mitzvah of giving criticism? Some say that it doesn’t apply today since so few people know how to criticize properly. We’re too subjective, and we use the mitzvah of criticism as a cover for our own complaints against others. When that is the case, the criticism usually comes out wrong, and just adds more sin to the picture.
But let’s say the person can’t hold themself back from speaking their mind, and end up saying what they feel has to be said?
Once something becomes reality, it becomes bashert—destined, something God intended to happen. If it was something you said, He wanted you to say it. If it was something you did, He wanted you to do it. As Yosef told his brothers at the end of Parashas Vayechi, nothing happens to anybody if God does not green light it. Ain od Milvado.
The story doesn’t end there, of course. While the offended deals with why God let you say or do what you did to them, you will have to deal with why God chose you to be His messenger for bad.
If what you did worked out well for everyone, then you can just take pleasure in the fact that God decided to make you a shaliach for good. But if what you did had negative repercussions, it is a wakeup call for you to look over your life and see what made Him use you for a shaliach for not-so-good. Because it is one thing to be cast as the villain in a play, but something altogether different to play the villain in real life, even if only for a moment.