Absolute Evil? – To Strike and to Heal
by Simon Jacobson
Lessons from the Egyptian Exodus on Destruction and Redemption
Passover, which is quickly approaching, is in essence the story of the classic battle between good and evil, and how good prevails. In truth, almost all enduring narratives contain this theme in one way or another.
The confrontation between good and evil is immediately recognizable to every one of us; it resonates in the struggles we each face in our own lives. At the same time, good and evil provide us with a stark contrast of opposites, a crystallized perspective – even if it may seem simplistic – on the nature of things, which, as strange as it sounds, is refreshing and even offers a measure of relief amidst the din of confusion that consumes much of our lives. The clarity of knowing your enemy is far more empowering than the doubts of not knowing who your adversary may be and when they may strike. That is why the analysis of a problem – and the identification of its root caused (as opposed to its symptoms) is the key to any solution. Awareness, our sages tell us, is half the cure of a disease.
But the problem is far more complex than it may initially seem: Is there such a thing as absolute evil? Can we always identify good from evil? Especially when we know that “there is not good without bad, and no bad without good.” When evil is intertwined with good, how do we go about eliminating the evil without also hurting the good?
One of the darkest phenomena bemoaned by mystics is, what they call, “taaruvot tov v’ra,” a disturbing concoction, which snowballs good and evil into one witches’ brew. This confusing “cholent” can be far more lethal than plain evil. When good and evil are two distinct entities, you can at least identify the enemy and deal with it accordingly. But when the enemy is hiding amidst your friends, when the evil is buried within the good, where do you begin? The lack of clarity allows the evil to grow, besides for demoralizing us and sapping our resolve to fight an invisible enemy.
Some of the worst diseases known to mankind are the ones in which parasites or malignant cells intertwine themselves and “hide” between healthy cells. Once they embed themselves, the only way to eliminate them is by killing, G-d forbid, good cells together with the bad ones.
An interesting Passover related verse can teach us much a about the distinction between good and evil, and the complication involved in extricating the good while eradicating the evil. And the L-rd shall strike (plague) Egypt, striking and healing, and they shall return to the L-rd, and He shall accept their prayer and heal them (Isaiah 19:22).
Two opinions are posited about the meaning of this verse: Rashi and the Talmud interpret that the verse refers to the first nine plagues, in which the “striking and healing” both happened to the Egyptians: first they were struck by the plagues (which were brought on by Aaron), then they were healed (by Moses’ prayer). The Zohar (II 36a), however, explains that the verse is referring to the tenth plague, when the Egyptians were “struck” and the Israelites “healed,” and both things happened at once (not in two stages).
We see from this that even when the evil was being struck it was also being healed. Until the last and final plague, which came to utterly destroy the evil. But even then, it was not about total destruction; “healing” took place for the good that remained.
Chassidic literature elaborates on the midnight before the great Exodus from Egypt. On that dark and mysterious night, at the moment when the clock struck midnight, the oppressors were struck and the oppressed were healed (“nogof l’mitzrayim v’ rofoh l’yisroel”), evil was vanquished and good prevailed. How can one distinguish between good and evil when they are all mixed together? This requires a unique Divine power, revealed at midnight, when love (chesed) meets discipline (gevurah) and opposites come together – a force that can separate between the good and the bad, and simultaneously address each accordingly (see Passover discourses of 5705).