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Thursday, January 16, 2014 | return to: columns, torah


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torah |  Even our sages resist the idea that God allows evil to exist

by michal kohane

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Yitro
Exodus 18:1–20:23
Isaiah 6:1–7:6; 9:5-6

 

michael kohane

“If God indeed created everything, that means that God created evil; and if we hold that our works define who we are, then God would also be evil?!” This is a challenge posed by a professor to his students, “proving” that faith in God is nonsense.

A student raises his hand. “Wait, professor. Does cold exist?”

“Of course! Have you never been cold?”

The young man replies, “Well, in fact, sir, cold does not exist. What we consider cold is in reality the absence of heat. A body or object transmits energy in the form of heat. At absolute zero (-460 degrees Fahrenheit), all matter becomes inert and incapable of reaction. But cold, sir? We have created this word to describe how we feel when we have less heat. How about darkness? Light we can study, but we cannot measure darkness, so we created a word for lack of light. The same goes to the absence of noise and, finally, evil. Evil does not exist, sir, not unto itself. Evil is a word we made up to express the absence of what we define as good. Evil is a result we perceive, just like the cold and darkness that comes when there is no heat or light rather than a creation by God.”

“Well,” the professor answers, “have you ever seen, felt or heard God?”

“Professor,” the student tries again, “what if I asked the class if they had seen, felt or heard your brain?”

Legend has it (and it might be legend) that the student in this story is Albert Einstein, who also said, “God does not play dice with the universe,” implying a God, a universe and a relationship between them, a concept we find in this week’s Torah portion.

Yitro is named after Moses’ father-in-law. Originally a non-Jewish, Midianite priest, he was a spiritual seeker who opted to join the children of Israel after hearing about the miracles God had made for them.

The main event in this week’s reading, however, is the giving of the Aseret Hadibrot, known as the Ten Commandments but better translated as the Ten Statements, or just the Ten Things.

The top 10 include keep Shabbat, honor your parents and do not murder. But the opening is peculiar: “I am the Lord your God. I brought you out of Egypt from the house of bondage.” It doesn’t read like a commandment.

What is this?

The first thing it says is that, like it or not, there is a God, however we wish to define “God”; that God does things for us; and that we might want to consider that fact in our life. The sages draw a parallel between the top 10 and another set of 10: the statements with which the world was created (“And God said, let there be light…” etc., in Genesis 1), bringing us back to the idea of a creator, a universe and a relationship.

Isaiah, the prophet of this week’s Haftorah, says in another chapter that God creates “light and darkness, makes peace and creates evil” (Isaiah 45:7). When the rabbis borrowed this verse for morning prayer, they changed it slightly to say, “God creates light and darkness, makes peace and creates everything.” Even for our sages, it was hard to admit head-on that God is the creator of evil!

But in a way, it’s as if God had a decision to make when creating the world: make a simple world with no perceived absences and thus no choices for us; or make a more complicated world — with heat and cold, light and darkness, good and evil — and challenge us to figure it out. God chose to create this world, a world that allows us to become his partners in completing creation, so that we may choose how to live in it.

When we cross the sea, following Moses, are we upset because there is mud sticking to our toes, or can we see the “wow” of the water standing upright on both sides? Do we pick ourselves up and join, like Yitro?

The question before us therefore is different from what we might initially think. It’s not, “Do we believe?” or “Is there proof of God’s existence so I can believe?” — because there is always enough “proof,” both for belief and disbelief. Rather, the question is, “Do we want to believe?” That part of the relationship with the divine is on us.


Michal Kohane is a longtime leader and educator in the Jewish community of Northern California.


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