Blog

Why did God create evil? A Parable from the Zohar

The fact that evil confronts good, gives man the possibility of victory.

R. YEHIEL MICHAEL OF ZLOTSHOV, Hassidic Aphorism

Let us assume for a moment that the rabbis and the allegorical school are correct in identifying the serpent as a metaphor for the evil inclination. But why did God create the impulse for evil? Would humankind have been better off not having to deal with such an urge? The Zohar raises this question, and offers the reader a most intriguing thought-provoking response with respect to the phenomena of moral evil (for more information regarding the relationship concerning natural evil and God, see my notes on Genesis 1:2 and the excursus at the end of Genesis 6):

  • Should it be asked, ‘How can a man love Him with the evil inclination? Is not the evil inclination the seducer, preventing man from approaching the Blessed Holy One to serve him? How, then, can man use the evil inclination as an instrument of love for God?’ The answer lies in this, that there can be no greater service done to the Holy One than to bring into subjection the “evil inclination” by the power of love to the Holy One, blessed be He. For, when it is subdued and its power broken by man in this way, then he becomes a true lover of the Holy One, since he has learnt how to make the “evil inclination” itself serve the Holy One. Here is a mystery entrusted to the masters of esoteric lore. All that the Holy One has made, both above and below, is for the purpose of manifesting His Glory and to make all things serve Him. Now, would a master permit his servant to work against him, and to continually lay plans to counteract his will? It is the will of the Holy One that men should worship Him and walk in the way of truth that they may be rewarded with many benefits. How, then, can an evil servant come and counteract the will of his Master by tempting man to walk in an evil way, seducing him from the good way and causing him to disobey the will of his Lord? But, indeed, the “evil inclination” also does through this the will of its Lord. It is as if a king had an only son whom he dearly loved, and just for that cause he warned him not to be enticed by bad women, saying that anyone defiled might not enter his palace. The son promised his father to do his will in love. Outside the palace, however, there lived a beautiful harlot. After a while the King thought: “I will see how far my son is devoted to me.” So he sent to the woman and commanded her, saying: “Entice my son, for I wish to test his obedience to my will.” So she used every trick in her book to lure him into her embraces. But the son, being good, obeyed the commandment of his father. He refused her allurements and thrust her from him. Then did the father rejoice exceedingly, and, bringing him in to the innermost chamber of the palace, bestowed upon him gifts from his best treasures, and showed him every honor. And who was the cause of all this joy? The harlot! Is she to be praised or blamed for it? To be praised, surely, on all accounts, for on the one hand she fulfilled the king’s command and carried out his plans for him, and on the other hand she caused the son to receive all the good gifts and deepened the king’s love to his son.

The Zoharic passage just cited illustrates a remarkable concept that exists in many of the primal religions of the world, the notion of the coincidentia oppositorum, also known as “the reunion of opposites.” As Eliade has already noted, the lost memory of this unitive existence with reality emanates from a part of humanity that yearns to overcome the duality and opposites we now experience in a post-Fallen world. Eliade adds that: “On the level of presystematic thought, the mystery of totality embodies man’s endeavor to reach a perspective in which the contraries are abolished, the Spirit of Evil reveals itself as a stimulant for the Good.

Zohar 2:162b–163a (all translations of the Zohar are from the Soncino translation).