The Reality of Evil

  • Rav Ezra Bick
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to the Thought of the Ramban
by Rav Ezra Bick

Ramban #08: The Reality of Evil



This week's shiur is a continuation of the previous one, in that it is concerned with the nature of evil. The topic, however, is not the suffering of man, but the metaphysical nature of evil itself, and its place in the Divine reality. As such, the discussion will not be moral in nature, but metaphysical, and the question that lies behind the Ramban's analysis is not the goodness of God but the unity of God.


Our text is the commentary of the Ramban to parashat azazel, the goat sent out to the desert on Yom HaKippurim (Vayikra, 16,8). The practice of releasing a goat, described as a sin-offering, to the desert, to azazel, raises obvious philosophic difficulty, but also a halakhic one, since any sacrifice, even if were to God, is prohibited outside the sanctuary. To this one must add the difficulty with the word azazel, which has no clear meaning in Hebrew.


The Ramban begins by explaining that azazel refers to some sort of evil power (as opposed to the explanation of Rashi that it means a "hard and rocky place"). He first cites the Ibn Ezra, who hints that the explanation of azazel is found at the end of thirty-three. The Ramban, who, as we know, believes in not disclosing secrets, nevertheless here feels free to explain the Ibn Ezra, since, as he states, Chazal have already done so in several places. The reference of the Ibn Ezra is, as R. Chavel explains in a footnote, to the thirty-third verse following the present one, which is "and they shall no longer offer their sacrifices to the demons…" (17,7). The Ramban then cites Bereishit Rabba which associates the sa'ir hamishtalei'ach (the "sent goat") with Eisav ("ish sa'ir" – a hairy man). The Ramban, of course, understands this not as the historical figure of the brother of Yaacov, but as the twin and opposite figure to Yisrael, the power of evil. He makes this explicit in his next quote, from Pirkei d'Rabi Eliezer, that identifies the destination of the se'ir hamishtalei'ach as Samael. We now have only to understand who is Samael.


The quote from Pirkei D'Rabi Eliezer is as follows:


That is why on Yom Kippur  they would give Samael a bribe to not cancel their sacrifice, as is written, "one lot to God and one lot to azazel," the lot of God is a burnt-offering, and the lot of azazel is a goat of sin-offering, and all the sins of Israel are on it. Samael sees that there is no sin in them on Yom Kippur. He says to God: Master of the worlds, you have one people on earth who are like the ministering angels in heaven – just as the ministering angels are barefoot, so Israel is barefoot on Yom Kippur; just as the ministering angels neither eat nor drink, so Israel does not eat or drink on Yom Kippur, just as the ministering angels cannot bend, so Israel stands all Yom Kippur; just as the ministering angels, peace serves as an intermediary between them, so Israel, peace serves as an intermediary between them on Yom Kippur; just as the ministering angels are free of all sin, so Israel is free of all sin on Yom Kippur.

God hears the testimony of Israel from their accuser and He atones for the altar, and for the Temple, and for the priests, and for all the congregation.


It is clear from this quote that azazel is Samael, who is the "accuser" of Israel; in other words, the satan. The Ramban goes on to explain.


See, they have told his name and his actions. And this is the secret of the matter. For they used to worship other gods, who are the angels, offering them sacrifices which are for them a sweet savor (rei'ach nicho'ach)…. Now the Torah totally prohibited the acceptance of their divinity or any worship of them, but God commanded that on Yom Kippur we send a goat to the desert to the prince who rules in desolate places, which is appropriate as he is the master of (that place), and from the emanation of his strength comes destruction and desolation, for he is the cause of the stars of the sword and blood and wars and quarrels and wounds and plagues and division and destruction, and, in general, the soul of the sphere of Mars. And his portion among the nations is Eisav, who is the nation who inherits the sword and wars. And among the animals, (his portion is) the goat, and in his portion are also the demons who are called mazikim in the language of the Rabbis, and se'irim in the language of Scripture, for both he and his nation are called se'ir (= goat, demon, and another name for Edom, the land of Eisav).


The Ramban is describing here a picture of evil – the forces of strife, desolation and destruction – that ascribes to it metaphysical reality. The gods of the nations are also real, and identified with angels, who are princes of different areas of the world. One of those angels, the prince of Eisav and the "soul" of Mars, is the source of the power of evil in the world.


The figure of Samael as an angel of God whose job is to be the "accuser," a sort of prosecuting attorney in the court of God, is familiar from rabbinic literature. But the association of the satan with the forces of evil, of war and destruction, is new with the Ramban. The Ramban here combines astrology (the star of Mars as the source of bloodshed) with demonology and with the traditional Jewish political dichotomy (Yaacov and Eisav), and puts it in a package of angels, divine beings who are in fact the gods of the nations. In so doing, the Ramban confers reality on idolatry, claiming that the nations worship real and powerful beings. What is even more striking, he confers reality on evil, a force with its own dominion (the desert) and celestial power (Mars) and guardian angel (Samael).


This idea is developed extensively in the Zohar under the name sitra achra, the "other side," meaning the other side as opposed to the "side of kedusha." At times, in later development, it became so powerful a force as to resemble dualism, with two warring forces of good and evil dividing the world between them. We are skirting very closely with a challenge to strict monotheism here, and the Ramban's warning that the Torah prohibits our worshipping these gods is not sufficient to blunt the metaphysical challenge to the unitarian basis of Judaism. The Ramban's defence against the dangers of dualism is found in his explanation of the rite of the se'ir hamishtalei'ach.


The intention of the se'ir hamishtalei'ach is not that it be an offering from us to him, God forbid, but rather that our intention should be that we are fulfilling the will of our creator who has commanded so. The parable for this is if one were to make a banquet for the master, and the master would command the one making the banquet: "Give a portion to this particular servant of mine." In this case, the one who makes the banquet is not giving anything to the servant, and is not honoring him, but rather everything is given to the master, and the master is giving a reward to the servant. And he has fulfilled his master's command and has done, in his master's honor, all that he was commanded. But the master, out of concern for the giver of the banquet, wished that all his servants take part in it, so that they praise him and not belittle him.


The most important point here is that the Ramban defines Samael not only as not independent, but as a servant of God. Although the Ramban's speaking of evil as a power unto itself is indeed revolutionary, he places Samael within the framework of the angels. There is no hint here of the concept of rebellious angels or fallen angels, and nowhere does the Ramban imply that Samael is warring with God. That very Christian concept has no basis in the Ramban's thought. On the contrary, Samael eats at the table of the banquet of God. Hence, it is not merely evil to serve him, it is absurd and meaningless. While it is true that the gods of the idolatrous nations really exist, according to the Ramban, serving them is a basic error of metaphysics, for they are all servants of God and hence cannot truly be worshipped. Of course, in the case of Samael, this raises the question of what service he provides, since the things he does are evil. The answer to this, not given in this section in the Ramban, presumably belongs to the previous shiur. However, one additional point is in the definition of Samael as "the accuser." His role is part of the process of justice.


The way to understand this is, I think, by remembering the basic kabbalistic orientation of the Ramban. Everything, without exception, is from God, and is rooted in the upper worlds. Being an "accuser" is part of God's justice, but it is, when taken in isolation, a role that necessarily involves the powers that we see as evil. Accusing means fomenting strife, and the powers of strife are, when they descend to this world, expressed as war and bloodshed, though obviously it still waits for men with free will to take up the arms and engage in strife. The Ramban here, as opposed to the previous shiur, is not discussing the morality of suffering and evil, but the metaphysics of it. Where does it come from? The only answer possible for the Ramban is that it comes from God and is expressed in one of His servants.


What does the service of Yom Kippur express? The Ramban gives a parable of a feast, to which the servant is invited so that he not be left out. I think that the meaning of this is that the service of Yom Kippur works by bringing about a unity of the different powers, the different servants, as it were, of God. On Yom Kippur, the Jews are like the angels, as the midrash in the Pirkei d'Rabi Eliezer makes clear. We make a banquet in God's honor, and it is important that all God's servants be included, because by partaking in the banquet they all become part of the unity of Israel's service of God. We don't serve the principle of evil, God forbid; we show that we understand that even the principle of evil is subject to God and dependent on Him. That is the opposite of serving evil; it is making, or rather demonstrating, that evil is subservient to God.


The Ramban has accomplished the twin task of at once raising evil to a metaphysical height and at the same time de-mystifying it. Evil really exists, but it is just another one of God's servants. One of the Ramban's basic principles is that the Jewish people are not just commanded to worship God alone, but they are also directly ruled by Him and not by any of his servants. The different nations have "princes" which rule them, but the Jews are in direct communion with God alone. Basically, we can ignore the existence of the angelic principle of evil, as we ignore the existence of all subservient powers of God. Once a year, on the day when all creation is put back into harmony and peace (and hence forgiveness) rules, we invite all God's servants to a feast we have made for God.


"The sun, the moon, and the stars…whom Hashem your God has distributed to all the nations" (Devarim 4,19) – for each of them has a star and above them the ministering angels, as was said to Daniel, "the prince of the kingdom of Persia, the prince of the kingdom of Greece," and that is why they make of them gods and worship them. But you have been taken by God, because you are God's portion, and you may not raise up a prince or assistant beside Him, for He has taken you out of the iron crucible…, Egypt, and He took you out of there against their princes…. All this He did so that you would be His portion and you would be special to His great name from all the nations. (Ramban TC Devarim 4,15)


The Ramban on numerous occasions indicates that he, unlike the Rambam, believes that witchcraft is real, that magic is real, astrology is real, demons really exist, idolatry is rooted in a higher reality – but, not only are all these things prohibited to Jews, they are basically irrelevant to Jews despite their power, because by serving God we are operating on a higher level of spiritual existence. Reality is ultimately spiritual, and therefore it is not surprising that the physical laws of the naturalists and philosophers do not describe all of reality, but precisely because reality is ultimately spiritual, there are different levels. The servants of God are not affected by the spiritual powers which govern other parts of the world. On the one hand, it is important for the Ramban to "close the mouths of they who make themselves wise in nature, who follow the Greek (Aristotle) who denied whatever he could not apprehend in his senses, who prided himself, he and his cursed disciples, into suspecting that anything not grasped by his reasoning is not true" (the end of the section we are reading); and, on the other hand, to place all these magical phenomenon outside the world of the servants of God.