Yael Chaya Miriam Gray

Dostoyevsky’s Quandary

“‘Tell me yourself, I challenge you—answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.’
“’No, I wouldn’t consent,’ said Alyosha softly.” ~ The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Project Guttenberg Version, the chapter entitled, “Rebellion.”
Neither would G-d consent to such an abomination! But like Noach before the Flood, I am a “small believer.”[1] G-d help me, but I both believe and don’t believe that G-d is all good. My perspective is severely limited: like everyone, I have seen much evil go unpunished and much good go unrewarded in my short lifetime. And it has been easy for me to believe in G-d’s inherent goodness when everything is going my way. But throw suffering and death into the picture, and i am quickly confounded. Sometimes, i find it impossible to believe that everything G-d permits to happen to us in his world is not only for our own good but is, in fact, the very best thing that could happen to us under the circumstances. This is nowhere more evident than when innocent children suffer and die.[2] If G-d is all good – and that He is all good is an article of faith for us – WHY does He permit Jewish babies – or any babies, for that matter – to be burned, beheaded, and brutalized? It is absolutely inconceivable that G-d should tolerate such evil[3], even for the sake of achieving His noblest goals in creating the creation: to build a dwelling place for the divine in this lowest of the worlds. So how do we reconcile the goodness of G-d with the incredible and completely unacceptable sufferings that His most innocent and vulnerable creations must suffer?
This question dogged even Moshe Rabbeinu who, in pleading with Hashem to “show me Your glory,” desired to know why the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. Hashem’s response was, “No one can see My face and live” but “I will hide you in the cleft of the rock and pass before you, and you will see My back.” That is, “ekhyeh asher ekhyeh” (“I am that I am”), but you will be able to perceive only “My back,” meaning, you will perceive Me in hindsight only, through My actions in history, and in so doing, you will be able to perceive what “I am” by inference from what “I am not” (Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim, on the via negativa). This may be the correct answer, given our mortal limitations, but it is far from a satisfying answer, especially given how many babies were slaughtered during the pogroms, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and the era of modern terrorism, culminating in October 7. Do we not deserve a better answer? Could we handle the answer we’d receive? Would any answer G-d could give us suffice to explain this monstrous evil?
I’m sure I don’t know. I’m also sure that Hashem would never bestow upon a piker like me that which he withheld from the father of prophets, our dear Moshe Rabbeinu. That’s never stopped me before, however, and it won’t stop me now. For what it is worth, this post is an attempt to scratch the intellectual itch that Dostoyevsky’s trenchant question has caused in my soul for years and years. For personal reasons having to do with the many defects in my emunah and bitachon, I find it necessary to acquit the Alm*ghty of having caused the enormous catastrophe which is human suffering and death. Because it’s not His fault. It’s OURS. And since the souls that are within us are truly “a part of G-d above,” we have dragged G-d into our experience of suffering and death, which is certainly not the result which G-d had intended.
Come and see what happened to G-d’s world when Adam and Chava ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good And Evil prematurely and without first having eaten from the Tree of Life!
“The serpent spoke the truth when it claimed that ‘knowledge of good and evil’ is a divine quality. Nevertheless, it was understandable that the human being should obtain this knowledge. Whereas G-d elects to know evil in an ‘aloof’ (makif) manner that keeps it separate and apart from the realm of holiness, man is an ‘internalizer’ (penimi). Our nature is to become attached to and involved in what we know, and to assimilate it into our being. Before Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, good and evil were completely separate domains. Man’s mission was ‘to work and keep the garden’ – to cultivate the good and keep out the bad. As for the ‘sparks’ of holiness buried in the realm of evil, these would be spontaneously attracted to the realm of good like sparks drawn to a great fire, and thereby extracted and elevated without man ever coming into contact with evil. But by eating from the Tree, Adam and Eve gained daat – intimate knowledge of evil – assimilating it into themselves. And because the human is a microcosm of all the worlds, the whole of creation was similarly transformed. From that moment, the two realms were confused, so that there is no evil without good and no good without evil. Man’s task became the ‘work of refinement’ – to distinguish and separate good from evil and evil from good.”[3]
Yes, Adam and Chava were meant to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, but on Shabbos – the beginning of which was a mere two hours away – and only after eating from the Tree of Life.[4] This would have enabled them to extract the ‘sparks’ of holiness buried in the realm of evil without first internalizing them: the sparks of good “would be spontaneously attracted to the realm of good like sparks drawn to a great fire, and [would] thereby [be] extracted and elevated without man ever coming into contact with evil.” [5] We would have perceived evil “from the outside in,” not “from the inside out.” In eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge before eating from the Tree of Life – a choice which each of us face many times in our respective lifetimes – Adam and Chava heroically, foolishly, and sinfully elected to plunge headlong and heedlessly into a world of evil, which they quickly internalized, in a failed and premature attempt to bring evil near to holiness. In so doing, they condemned themselves – and the Deity resident within themselves, within their progenty, and within all of His many creations – to captivity in a material body that can suffer and die. This is the golus.
The soul cringes.
[1] On the one hand: “Noach…was a small believer, believing and not-believing that the Flood would come, and entered the ark only when compelled to by the rising waters.” R. Yochanon in Midrash Rabbah, Rashi, in The Book Of Genesis With Commentary By 500 Sages And Mystics, R. Yanki Tauber (Open Door Books, NY, NY: 2023), p. 80. On the other hand: “Belief in the possibility of a thing has the power to bring it into actuality. So Noach’s heart was conflicted regarding the Flood, ‘believing and not-believing.’ …[Noach] had G-d’s instructions to prepare for it; …[but] he resisted believing that it would occur, lest his belief contribute toward its materialization. R. Yechiel Michel of Zlotchov, in Tauber, “The Book Of Genesis,” Id.
[2] Dostoyevsky, Karamazov, “Rebellion,” Id. Imo, this is the most powerful chapter of any non-Torah book I’ve ever read.
[3] “[W]e do not accept any … explanation of evil. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about our contention with evil is our utter refusal to reconcile ourselves to it, no matter how natural and realistic a part of our existence it seems to be. We may resolve the problem of evil in the logical and philosophic sense, yet we reject it on every level, with every fibre of our being.
“When Cain argues before G-d, ‘It’s all Your fault for allowing me to do it’ – certainly the most cynical defense ever to be presented by a murderer – in our hearts we agree with Cain, however unspeakable his argument. Evil should not be. We can discuss the reasons and purposes G-d has for it, but we will never convince ourselves of its necessity.
“Indeed, it cannot be otherwise. Because we are hewn in the image of G-d, if evil is contrary too the divine will, it can never gain acceptance in ours. And because the very creation of evil was contrived by its Creator to come about as an unwanted reality, its reality will always lack a leg upon which to stand – intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.
“G-d does not want us to understand evil, because to understand something is to accept it, or, at the very least, to make it bearable.
“G-d wants us to reject evil with the utter rejection that comes from incredulity, to fight it with the singleminded intensity with which one fights an enemy one not only abhors but refuses to recognize as a legitimate adversary. G-d wants us not to discover purpose in evil, but to expose the nothingness that it is.” Tauber, “The Book Of Genesis,” Id., Introduction and Overview To Parashas Bereishis, The Problem Of Evil, pp. 5-6.
[4] R. Chaim Vital; R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi. From Tauber, “The Book of Genesis,” Id.
[5] Zohar, Eitz Chayim.
[6] See Note 4, above.
~ “Percolated” over Shabbos Vayeichi, 18 Tevet 5784; written on 19 Tevet 5784, Chag HaSylvester (secular New Year’s Eve), 2023.
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Jewish Mystic.