2253 Reb Zalman: The Heart of Evil (print)



Rebbe Zalman Schachter-Shalomi calls himself "the Last of the Mohicans." With Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach gone, Zalman is the final bridge between the old country of tradition and modern post-holocaust Judaism that chooses to look to the future as much as to the past. Reb Zalman is sometimes referred to as the cybernetic rebbe. His computer skills are well advanced and his future planning often includes technology yet to be developed.

Yet, he is an old time rebbe, filled with hasidic tales and anecdotes that embrace the heart. He teaches in many languages, and even his English is multi-dimensional. His sharp and unusual insights invariably are provocative and inspiring for audiences. 

I remember one particularly powerful tale that opened for me a new understanding of the difficult and complex questions regarding the issue of good and evil.

"My dear friends," he said, "I was recently asked about the question of evil. Is there evil in the world? If so, how can it exist if God is all powerful and all good? As many of you know, this is a question that has been problematic for thousands of years. So let me tell you a little story."

Zalman closed his eyes and began to rock back and forth. In his eldering years, he has taken on the role of a spiritual zayde, a grandfather for dozens of rabbis and thousands of students. Stroking his beard, he told this story.

"When the Baal Shem Tov was only five years old, his father Eliezer became fatally ill. On the last day of his life, young Israel's father called to the boy and said, 'My son, remember that the Enemy will always be with you, but no matter what happens the soul within you is pure and whole. The Enemy can neither enter it nor blemish it; your soul belongs to God. Fear no man and do not fear the Enemy, for God is always with you.' Then Eliezer, the father of the Baal Shem Tov, died.

"Israel's mother had died soon after his birth, when he was circumsized. So now that he was orphaned, the people of his village raised him. He was not much of a student and he constantly gazed out of the classroom window. Actually, he hardly spent any time in the classroom for he was always wandering in the woods, eating roots and berries and singing with the birds. 

"His life outdoors was his primary education. He followed ants, slept in the moss, talked with animals, and most of all he quietly listened. He listened to the wind, the creak of branches, the flutter of leaves. In his silence he could hear things others could only imagine; spiders weaving, beetles breathing, plants growing. This is how he learned the language of nature.

"At the age of ten, Israel became the helper of the schoolmaster in the village of Horodenka. His job was to guide younger children to the schoolhouse each morning and back to their homes in the afternoons. He was wonderful with the younger children and soon they became radiant. Often the children were late arriving at school or going home, but the parents did not mind because the children seemed to be so cheerful; their cheeks were rosy with laughter for they were constantly singing. The adults were pleased that their children were so happy.

"Only the children knew that Israel took them to and from school by a round about way. Rather than walking down the road, the way most people would have gone, they cut across the fields and through the forest. They called to the chipmunks and whistled with the birds. Most of all, they chanted each day a wonderful tune that Israel taught them." 

"The children walked through the woods with young Israel, the son of Eliezer, chanting wonderful tunes. And just like us, the children were carried to the heights of joy!

"The heights of joy, indeed. Their song was so filled with innocent love that it broke through the barriers that guard the heavenly realms. Soon this song was filling the palaces of the Divine and a rumor began that the messianic time had come. When Satan, the Enemy, heard this rumor, he instantly appeared in the heavenly courts and with a fury that caused a great peal of thunder and cried out, 'Someone in the world is meddling and must be stopped.'

"The prophet Elijah, who has the job of announcing the arrival of the messianic era, came forward and said, 'They are only children.' But in truth, Elijah himself was uncertain. This was the closest the world had ever come. Perhaps the innocent joy of the children actually heralded the arrival of the messianic era.

"Satan scowled at Elijah and demanded of God in a booming voice (Zalman roared), 'Let me challenge these children.'

"God acquiesced (Zalman spoke sweetly), 'Go, challenge.'

"Thus, Satan came to earth and began his search for something or someone that could do his work. As everybody knows, the Enemy can instigate things, but actual deeds must be performed only by living creatures. 

"Satan checked the entire insect world, looking for one that would carry his poison into the bloodstream of the boy called Israel. None of the insects would agree. He checked all the animals to find one who would attack Israel. But the boy knew the language of nature and all the animals refused. Indeed, there was not a single living thing that would cooperate with the Enemy to harm the boy.

"Finally, Satan found an old man who lived as a charcoal burner. He was one of a extremely rare breed for he had been born without a soul. His body functioned as a normal body. But there were no feelings whatsoever. He did not know right from wrong. He could not be with human beings. Indeed, when he had been born, his mother had abandoned him in the woods, for she instinctively knew he was more animal than human. He was nursed by a she-bear and learned to survive by eating ants and grubs. 

"But he had higher intelligence and would spy on people who camped in the woods. This is how he learned about fire and from that he learned to make charcoal. He had been spotted on numerous occasions, but was so weird looking, making such strange sounds, people avoided contact. Yet they pitied him. People who wanted charcoal would take what they needed and in return would leave behind food and drink. He always hid when people came around to take his blackened wood. In this way, the charcoal burner never had to encounter a single human being his entire life.

"This was the perfect creature for the Enemy's purpose, one that could not say no to his evil designs. Indeed, even before this time, Satan had sent a demonic power to exercise itself through the charcoal burner's body. On nights that were lit by a full moon, the pathetic brute would grow fur. Then, standing on all fours, he would howl at the moon. People talked about a strange werewolf living in the woods but they never had the courage to search out the truth.

"Satan however had a much more insidious scheme this time than simply turning loose a werewolf. When he found the charcoal burner sleeping, he reached into his body and removed his heart. Then Satan took a piece of his own heart, the heart of evil, the nucleus of the darkest void, and placed this black heart within the empty chest of his creature.

"The next morning, Israel led the singing children across the fields toward the line of trees that marked the forest. As they approached the trees, suddenly a huge, shadowy creature stepped out of the dark forest, snarling, growling, spitting. It's eyes gleamed red, it's nostrils sent plumes of orange fog spiraling in the early morning air. Standing on its hind feet, it was as big as a tree, twenty feet tall. When it spread its hairy arms, it could grasp a team of horses. But most frightening was its wail as it howled and yelped and shrieked.

"The children either fainted dead away or ran for their lives. They scattered in all directions except for those lying in a heap behind young Israel. Israel was the only one to stand his ground, facing this monster, never moving. After a while, the immense werewolf returned to the woods and all was quiet once again.

"Each time Israel revived one of his fallen charges, the child screamed upon awakening and ran directly back home. Soon, Israel was standing all alone by the edge of the forest.

"The parents of the village were angry with Israel for having taken the children through the forest. Everyone knew a werewolf lived there. Even though they thought that the children were exaggerating its size, still it had been foolish to take them into the wooded area. Little did they know that the children were not exaggerating at all. 

"Israel told the adults that there was nothing to worry about. In truth, nobody had been hurt. The children had been frightened, that is all. He assured them that the next day they would get over their fear, and this would be a good thing. After a while the parents agreed with Israel and said that he could guide the children the next day.

"The following morning, the children huddled together as they approached the trees that marked the beginning of the woods. Sure enough, at the same place as the previous day, the hideous creature once again appeared, bellowing and howling at the edge of the tree line. Israel cautioned the children to stand still, or to lie down and cover their faces if they must. He would deal with the creature."

Reb Zalman now got quite still. His eyes were closed and his rocking was more subtle than before. It felt as if he were standing before this creature himself. We were the children; he was the warrior facing the unknown. We waited. Nobody moved. Slowly, he began again.

"Israel walked forward alone, placing himself directly between the werewolf and the children. As he got closer to the beast, it loomed larger and larger, until it was like a black cloud that enveloped him. He was frightened, to be sure, but his dying father's words kept repeating themselves in his mind: 'Do not fear the Enemy, for God is always with you.'

"He kept walking. The werewolf did not move. Closer and closer. He walked up to it. And then the dark cloud descended and Israel found himself inside the demon. In the murky shadows, he saw its smooth, black heart; the heart of darkness. He reached out, took it in his hands, and stepped backwards. Once again, he was outside of the creature's body. 

"The heart writhed and pulsated in his hands. It was slippery and repulsive, but he kept his grip tight. In this moment, young Israel had in his power the opportunity to destroy the heart of evil. If he did so the world would never be the same. 

"But he noticed a drop of blood trickling down one side of the heart and his soul was touched to its depths. He could see that this heart was in torment; it was in agony. It too suffered the enormous pain of separation just like everyone else in the world; even the heart of evil has within it a spark of the Divine, and it too yearns to be returned to its source.

"Thus, the compassion of young Israel opened wide and his only choice was to release the heart. He placed it on the earth. At that moment, the earth split open and swallowed the heart into is depths.

"The next day, the villagers found the body of the charcoal worker. It is said that he had a peaceful look on his tormented face. It is also said that the children never were as happy again. For the heart of darkness continued to do its work. The fear that it left behind was now inside the children, influencing  their actions, feelings, and thoughts. Indeed, they were now more like their parents than the innocent children they used to be."


We sat silently for many minutes pondering what we would do if we had the chance to destroy the heart of evil. What kind of world would it be? Reb Zalman rocked from side to side. Then he said, "You see, my friends, while at first this story seems sad--perhaps it would have been better if Israel had destroyed the heart--it is still a story of great optimism. For it teaches us a big lesson. The lesson is that even the heart of Satan has a divine spark; even the heart of evil yearns to be redeemed. 

"This is important because we learn that our job is not to set up a battleground to eradicate evil, but to search out its spark of holiness. Our task is not to destroy but to build; not to hate, but to find a place of yielding; not to polarize, but to discover the points of commonality so that we can work together. Learn this lesson, dear friends, it will serve you well." (hear the audio version of this story and commentary: 1220 and 1221)