2384 The Kabbalah on Good and Evil


The universe can be viewed as a metaphysical magnet with one pole called good and the other called evil. Good is represented by God and evil by Satan. The more we engage in certain activities, the closer we are drawn to God. Of course the opposite is also true. 

It is important to keep in mind that we are discussing God not Ein Sof. Ein Sof is beyond good and evil, we must not attribute "goodness" to It. To do so would exclude evil, and this would leave it deficient--which it is not. Of course, it would be just as foolish to call it evil as to call it good. Simply said, Ein Sof embraces everything, including the totality of good and evil.

In our reality, in the simplest terms, we say that good is whatever brings us closer to God and evil whatever draws us away. When an iron filing falls to the surface of a paper that has a magnet beneath it, a number of variables determine whether it will be drawn to the positive side of the magnet or the negative side. How close does it fall to either side? How strong is the magnet? How much friction (resistance) does the surface of the paper have? What is the shape and smoothness of the filing itself?

We could ask similar questions about ourselves. How close do we feel to God? How strong is the influence of God Consciousness in our lives? How easy is it to access awareness of God's presence? How much time do we give ourselves to explore the deeper meanings of life? How much are we conditioned by habitual behavior that makes our lives routine and unconscious? When we answer these questions, we get a sense of how connected we will be to the magnet of "goodness."

Notice that the iron filing itself is neither positive nor negative before it becomes magnetized. We are neither good nor evil in our nature. We are simply the product of the accumulated influences in our lives, plus the most important variable: our free will. We can place ourselves closer or farther away from things, as we choose. These choices, of course, will influence where we end up.

Nothing is ever stationary because the forces of the universe are constantly tugging and pushing. Higher consciousness, the light of the Divine, is a powerful source of attraction. Yet it is balanced by an influential opposing force. Some name this opposing force the 'evil inclination' (yetzer hara). 

In human beings, the evil inclination has a wide arsenal at its disposal, including but not limited to lust, greed, status, fame, fortune, popularity, acquisition, cleverness, talent and power. None of these characteristics is inherently evil, but each has the potential of seduction to draw us deeper into our ego-structures and farther from our connectedness with the Divine.

The constant tension of opposing forces is a universal law. In magnetism it is called positive and negative; in space, up and down, right and left, forward and behind. In the East the principle is described as ying and yang. In Kabbalah it is called gevurot (restrictive powers) and chasidim (expansive powers). 

The dynamic tension between gevurot and chasidim appears continually in major biblical motifs: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Abraham and his nephew Lot, Sarah and Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac, Lot and his daughters, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, and on it goes. In each instance, the Kabbalist perceives a universal relationship of one representing more the side of restriction and the other the side of expansion. This cosmic push and pull is the nature of creation and the principle upon which good and evil is based.


Purim is a holy day based on the Book of Esther that celebrates the miracle of Jewish survival when the evil Haman tried to commit genocide. In religious circles, Haman is often equated with Hitler, and some mystical teachers suggest that parallels to the Third Reich can be found in the Book of Esther.

Purim is viewed by Kabbalists as a highly significant holy day. It is viewed as the most hidden day of celebration; hidden because God's nearness is not as obvious on this day. On Passover, for example, God is quite present, causing miracles to get the Israelites to a new land. On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the idea of being judged for the coming year makes the presence of the Divine almost palpable. So too Shavuot, with God on Mt. Sinai giving the Torah, and Sukkot, in which God's protection is a primary theme. But it is well known that God's name is never mentioned in the Book of Esther.

The celebration of Purim is festive and colorful. Many people dress in costumes; absurdity is the theme of the day. The more ridiculous a statement, the more it is in the spirit of Purim. Major newspapers across Israel print headlines on this day like "Knesset Goes Out of Business," or "Taxes Abolished," or "Leviathan Spotted in Dead Sea." In synagogues everywhere, prayers are sung in strange melodies and the Book of Esther is read with inflections and innuendos that are often riotous. 

In Jerusalem during Purim, I usually shopped around from one congregation to another to enjoy the flavor of different people reading the text. Some of the most sedate rabbis go from Jekyll to Hyde on this day. In one of my favorite shuls, a large chandelier was ripped out of the ceiling by a highly respected Kabbalah teacher who decided to swing during the middle of the megillah reading. 

Purim and Simchat Torah, the celebration just after Sukkot, when the cycle of Torah readings begins anew, are among rare occasions when inebriated people are seen on the streets of Jerusalem. On Purim, this comes from the traditional teaching that we should reach a state of mind in which we cannot tell the difference between the hero of the story, Mordecai, and the arch-villain Haman. 

The source of the idea of becoming intoxicated on Purim comes from a talmudic statement made by Rava that says it is our "obligation" to fill ourselves with the spice of Purim (Rava never mentions wine or alcohol) until we cannot tell the difference between the words "cursed be Haman" from the statement "blessed be Mordecai."9

 Kabbalists point out that the Hebrew words for blessed be Mordecai (baruch Mordecai) have the value in gematria of 502, which equals the value of the Hebrew words for cursed be Haman (arrur Haman).9


Thus, for Jewish mystics, the words themselves indicate that the archetype of good, represented by Mordecai, and that of evil, represented by Haman, have the same numeric value. This is echoed by the fact that the word for serpent (nahash), which represents evil incarnate in the Garden of Eden, and the word for messiah (meshiach), also have identical gematria.9


Rava's teaching is that we must immerse ourselves in the sweet spices of deep wisdom until we have attained an intimate understanding of the nature of good and evil. When we reach a transcendental point in which good and evil overlap to the extent that we can perceive how either can transform into the opposite, the intensity of the experience can be so great that we lose our sense of personal identity. If we do so, we can enter into a world that is called devekut, constant awareness of God. But the process of understanding the relationship of good and evil is paradoxical and not as easily accomplished as it sounds.

The essential message that Rava communicates is that good and evil is not a dichotomy at all, it is not a split between opposites but an enclosed universe of curved time and space. A mobius strip gives us a graphic example of this.9

 If we take a strip of paper and attach the two ends, but before attaching them we twist one of the ends to its opposite side, we have a mobius strip. Now, if we pick up this strip and start drawing a line, we will end up with a line on both sides without ever removing the pencil from the paper. The two sides geometrically are actually one.

This is not to say that good is really evil, and evil is good. Not at all. Rather that each has the spark of the other and if pushed too far this spark can be ignited.

The complexities of the question of evil push us to the limits of reason. At these limits, we must extend beyond the boundaries of the mind and draw upon resources that surpass the normal limits of the intellect. We do this through contemplative exercises, meditation, visualizations, study, and intense devotion. In this process, we move to a new mind state. Only with a revitalized perspective can we gain insight into the issue of good and evil. It is therefore said that when enough people accomplish this understanding of the nature of evil, we will enter a new era of awareness. Indeed, the mystics say that Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, is really like Purim; and Purim itself represents what things will be like in the era of messianic consciousness.9



In the traditional paradigm, "good" is doing things the way God wants us to do them, and "evil" is doing things another way. From this perspective, evil is considered to be poison. It is something that should be obliterated. Our task is to avoid it at all costs, but should we encounter it, we must exterminate it.

The mystical teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, however, presents us with a new paradigm. It says that evil has divine nature within it. As the Zohar describes, "There is no sphere of the Other Side [evil] that entirely lacks some streak of light from the side of holiness."10

 Rather than destroy it, our task is to uplift it. This adds considerable complexity to the law, for whereas tradition would have it black and white, the mystics say that there are an infinite variety of shadings, each of which can be raised to new heights.

Kabbalah teaches that evil in reality as we know it can never be eradicated, even if we wanted, for it fulfills a primary function in creation.10

 Without something pulling us away from the Divine, we would be overwhelmed by God, would lose our free will, and creation could not exist as it does now.

The old paradigm views good and evil as a simple dichotomy. God is in one direction and Satan is in the other. The new paradigm suggests that God is in every direction, represented by light, and Satan, is also everywhere, represented by veils. From this viewpoint, evil is defined as a force that dims the light. 

The old way of looking at things is that something is inherently evil. For example, money is the root of all evil, there can be a bad seed that produces an evil outcome, a person can be evil to his or her core, a serpent is evil. The new way says that evil is not a thing, rather it is related to awareness. Money can be good or evil, depending upon what we do with it. A bad seed can produce an infected fruit, or it can be converted into something useful. Mold can be discarded as harmful, but certain kinds become penicillin. A person can be evil and even a potential murderer, but there may be a way to bring out a different quality that could benefit humankind. A poisonous serpent may strike at us, or we may milk its venom to use for medicine. 

Our tendency is to hold on to old ways of seeing things. It seems easier to clearly define good and evil and to know exactly how to deal with it. Yet, difficult questions do not yield easy solutions. And the question of good and evil is one of the most difficult of all.