5754 - #35

When Avot 5:22 wishes to present us with models that personify the battle of good and evil, it informs us of the merits and rewards of the students of Avraham Avinu and the faults and penalties of the students of Bilaam HaRasha. Whether or not there have been in the annals of time more evil individuals than the latter, evil has come to be inherently identified in Bilaam, the evil prophet. Truthfully, this man was most perplexing. He spoke with G-d, was in certain ways even a greater prophet than Moshe Rabbeinu (Bamidbar Rabbah 14:20), knew the inner most concepts of the Divine Nature as evidenced by his knowledge of the exact moment of G-d's wrath (see T.B Berachot 7a and Sanhedrin 105b - the exact understanding of this concept is beyond the scope of this Spark). How could he have acted the way he did? How could someone with this clear knowledge of Hashem act in a way that defied Hashem, in the way of rishut? The very answer is inherent in the question.

We live in a world that connects the extent of our religious devotion with the extent of our faith. The resulting basic religious issue of our society is, therefore, not how we respond to G-d but whether we recognize His Existence. We even postulate that the reason for a lack of a definite proof for His Existence is in order to allow for free choice - we have the choice of accepting the Existence of G-d and living a righteous life or rejecting His Existence and living the opposite. The choice is to accept or not accept but to accept G-d and live the opposite? We cannot imagine that, at least in the consistent determination of a lifestyle. Who would know G-d, accept Him as He is and turn around and simply not follow His directives? The answer is Bilaam. Yet, in so answering we must also recognize that we are declaring that the ultimate issue of free choice does not exist at the point of knowledge but at the point of behaviour. Good and evil within the realm of Torah does not revolve around whether you accept the existence of G-d but, given clearly the existence of Hashem, whether you follow His directives or not? (While obviously also a matter demanding investigation, we will not within this Spark deal with the connection between righteous behaviour and the non-acceptance of G-d's existence.)

Free choice is a concept many people mis-understand. To be free, they believe the choice must not have any consequences. A choice to do good and receive reward or do evil and be punished is not deemed to be free for who would choose an action that would necessarily bring punishment. Yet the free choice given by Torah is exactly of this nature; it carries definite repercussions. The way that many attempt to circumvent this problem is by postulating the free choice of knowledge that we described above. We do not have a clear proof of G-d so that one can choose not to follow Him - a choice the person can live with because, by postulating that G-d does not exist, the person also believes that s/he will not be punished for any transgressions.

Within a Torah perspective, though, the lack of a definite proof of Hashem's existence, rather than creating the framework for free choice and responsibility for one's actions actually presents a defense of non-culpability and a reason for a person not to be responsible. The classic example is that of the tinok she'nishba, the child who was captured by non-Jews. See Avotot Ahava, section 3 for a full discussion regarding this concept. Rashi, Shabbat 31a and Rambam, Hilchot Mamrim 3:2 clearly substantiate the principle that true doubt is a mitigating factor for non-responsibility, not that which allows for free choice to exist. Chazan Ish, Yoreh De'ah, Hilchot Shechita 2:16 clearly points to the hidden presence of G-d within our world - and its effect on faith - as reason for treating violators of Torah with love to bring them back to Torah, and not according to the harsh dictates of T.B. Avodah Zarah 26b which are only applicable in a world where the Divine presence is clearly perceived by all. Doubt is not that which allows the choice of good and evil to exist. The ultimate choice of good and evil, with associated repercussions, in fact exists when there is no doubt, in the world where G-d's presence is clearly known. Evil so personified by Bilaam is the choice of not listening to G-d, fully recognizing His Existence and the repercussions. See in fact T.B. Sanhedrin 105a that states that Bilaam clearly understood the consequences beyond death of his actions.

The Torah concept of free choice is therefore, fully accepting G-d's Existence and fully acknowledging that the mitzvot are His directives, the choice of listening to G-d and being rewarded or not listening and knowing full well that there will be punishment. Evil is the latter choice. Bilaam whose knowledge of Hashem approached that of Moshe Rabbeinu, and even exceeded it in certain ways, chose the latter and therefore, more than anyone he is the personification of evil and is referred to as Bilaam HaRasha. But still how could he so act? Was he not, at least, frightened of the repercussions? His behaviour seems more foolishness than evil for is it not truly ridiculous to make this choice?

While a full answer to this question is well beyond the parameters of this Spark (see my Tree of Knowledge, Parts I, II and III, Nishma Journal VII, VIII and IX for some further discussion on connected issues), we must already see that our perception of evil must change. We tend to perceive evil to exist in the ignoring of Hashem, in the realm of the secular. We associate it with the drive for lawlessness and an unbridled allowance to meet our every whim. Bilaam informs us that evil exists ultimately in the realm of the religious for only once Hashem's existence is accepted can true evil exist. It actually is the desire to defiantly say no to G-d, even at the expense of losing all pleasure and facing all punishments.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

Return to top