PARSHAT KEE TETZE
GOOD AND EVIL
“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 25:17)
There is a Buddhist tale of a monk and a gladiator who are trying to cross a narrow bridge at the same time. They meet in the middle. The gladiator says, “Back up. I am bigger and stronger than you. Let me pass.” The monk says, “I will back up. But only if I can show you both heaven and hell in one minute.” The gladiator draws his sword, “Why you arrogant fool! How dare you defy me? I ought to kill you.” The monk replies, “That is hell.” The gladiator, taken aback, puts down the sword and apologizes. “I am so sorry. I should not have lost my temper. I will back up and let you pass.” The monk replies, “That is heaven.”
The moral of the story is that we all have a little heaven and a little hell within us. We are all a mixture of good and evil. As the Rabbis describe it, every human is born with a yetzer hatov “the good inclination” and a yetzer hara “the evil inclination.” They constantly struggle within us. Sigmund Freud, born of Jewish parents but a confirmed atheist, taught a similar idea. Life is a constant struggle between the id (the inner drives, often unconscious) and the superego (the voice of conscience we learn from our parents and out community.) Our ego tries to balance the two.
There is a long argument among both religious and philosophical thinkers whether humanity is naturally good or naturally evil. The Enlightenment philosopher Thomas Hobbes taught that humans in nature are selfish, that without a strong government life would be a war of all against all, and that life in the wild is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Another Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau taught that humans in nature are good, that it is society that corrupts them. He introduced the idea of the noble savage and taught “man is born free and everywhere is in chains.”
Religious thinkers are often equally divided. Augustine of Hippo taught the notion of original sin, that humans have a sinful nature with roots in the sin of Adam and Eve. On the other hand, many new age thinkers see humans as only good. The rapper J. Cole has written, “You are perfect exactly as you are. With all your flaws and problems, there’s no need to change anything. All you need to change is the thought that you aren’t good enough.”
I love the Jewish idea that people are a combination of good and evil. But is it true for everyone? Are there psychopaths out there, people who are truly evil? Should I be looking for the good in a Haman, Hitler, or Osama bin Laden? Do mass murderers have any redeeming qualities? What about people who flourish on sadism? How should we consider them?
The final law in this portion teaches us to remember Amalek. Amalek was far more than a nation who attacked the people Israel from the rear, deliberately targeting the weak and the lame. In Jewish tradition, Amalek came to represent pure evil. It is not simply a nation, but people who love cruelty and causing others to suffer. Amalek, or evil, must be fought in every generation. The Rabbis say in the Midrash regarding King Saul being compassionate to Amalek, “Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish says: Anyone who becomes compassionate when he should be cruel will ultimately become cruel when he should be compassionate” (Kohelet Rabah 7:16). It is vital that we fight evil.
Perhaps those who commit mass murder have some kind of brain disease or grew up in deprived homes. One can seek to understand their mindset. Nonetheless, we must stand up to evil wherever it raises its head. This includes dictators and despots who use their power to destroy their enemies. This includes terrorists who seek political aims with no regard for human lives. And sadly, it includes the many individuals who acquire weapons to commit acts of mass carnage. Amalek is alive and well, not just in Biblical times but in our own time.