Why Bad ( and Good ) THINGS HAPPEN

C hristopher Marlowe wrote in The Jew of Malta, “There is no sin but ignorance. Ignorance is the breeding ground of error. And error is the source of sin. In biblical Hebrew, the generic word for sin is het.. It means to err, to miss the mark. It does not mean to do evil. Though het, (error,) is not evil in itself, it may bring evil in its wake.

           And the Adam knew Eve his wife, and she became pregnant and gave

           birth to Cain saying, I have acquired a man from the Eternal. And

           again she gave birth, to his brother Abel. And Abel was a shepherd

           and Cain was a worker of the soil. And in time it came to pass that

           Cain brought from the fruit of the soil an offering to the Eternal. And

           Abel, he also brought from the first born of the flock and the fat parts

           thereof and the Eternal accepted Abel and his offering; but to Cain

           and his offering the Eternal did not accept and Cain was very

           angry.. .. ... . And it came to pass when they [Cain and Abel] were in

           the field that Cain rose up against Abel, his brother, and murdered

           him. (Gen. 4:1-5, 8)

In a world according to the Bible, a world in which there is space for free will, bad things are going to happen and they are going to happen even to good people. By the fourth chapter of Genesis this is firmly established. (Cain has murdered Abel)

An omnipotent Creator could stop the Cams before they acted, but that would be inconsistent with free will. As long as choice is ours, the possibility for evil, often unintentionally inflicted, exists.

Few people act knowingly with evil design. Most often an erroneous perception of what will result in maximum pleasure provides the motivation behind the error that leads to evil and the tragedy that so frequently accompanies evil. But error need not be a partner to our choices. In the first book of the Bible prior to Cain murdering his brother, we are told explicitly that hct is not an inherent part of human nature: “And the Eternal said to Cain why are you angry?......... If you do well you shall be accepted hut if you do not well, het [error] crouches at your door and to you is its desire but you can rule over it” (Gen. 4: 6-7).

In the next verse the murder occurs. This episode provides a unique insight into the biblical understanding of the human psyche. Hct is not something with which we are endowed like an unwanted inheritance or a genetic defect. The norm is having goodness in the world. That is the message in having the first humans placed in the Garden of Eden, the biblical version of paradise. Error is the aberration. Unfortunately, as the Bible makes clear in Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden, error separates us from the pleasure of “Eden.” That separation in biblical language is known as the hiding of God’s face. “They will forsake me Then My anger shall be kindled against them on that day and I will forsake them and I will hide My face from them. ..... and evil and many troubles shall come upon them” (Deut. 31:16, 17).With God hidden, the world assumes free reign and the potential for troubles increases.

During September 1991, before 250,000 people in Central Park, New York City, Billy Graham endorsed this 3,300-year-old understanding of evil. Occasionally characterized as God’s traveling salesman, he acknowledged that he had changed his mind about divine punishment: “I used to think of it as Dante’s Hell. Now I think of it more like separation from God.”

Cain’s punishment for murdering Abel was the withdrawal of God’s presence: “And Cain said: My punishment is greater than I can bear. . . . From Thy face I shall be hid” (Gen. 4:13,14).

Criminal trial lawyer Alan Dershowitz remarked to me that God had coddled Cain. For Dershowitz, the proper punishment for Cam’s heinous murder of his brother would have been the ultimate, the death penalty. The Bible sees things from a different perspective. In biblical justice, Cain suffered a fate far worse than death: the enforced separation from God. He was denied any awareness of the transcen- dent unity that pervades all existence. He had no hint of a larger purpose other than day-to-day survival, a living death.

                              NATURE’S ROLE IN TRAGEDY

If all suffering were attributable to human agency, then free will and our inherent ability to err might make its presence more readily logical. Unfortunately, the blind forces of nature lie behind much human grief An earthquake shakes a bridge from its foundation, dropping it onto a crowded bus passing beneath. A chance cosmic ray smashes into an ovum, produces a free radical which in its natural drive to establish electrical balance tears and mutates a chromosome. As a result, a crippled child is born. The same Creator that produces the beauty of a sunrise and the colors of a flower must be credited with these horrors as well.

Instinctively we might recoil at such a Creator. But instincts are not always the best guides in complex situations.

We might speculate that each person on the bus was there by design. The data- handling power of a supercomputer could produce the perturbations required to arrange the lives of selected persons so that they alone would be on that ill-fated bus. Obviously an omnipotent Creator could do the same. Such divine planning is possible. I am not certain that biblical religion demands it to be continuously implemented. The famines that plagued the biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob throughout the Book of Genesis might have been God’s deliberate work. But the text does not say so. They also may have been one of the many forms by which nature, with its leeway, constantly challenges us. It is for us to learn how to react to the bad as well as to the good even if we cannot understand the purpose of either (Deut. 28:47; Deut. 31:20; Hosea 13:6). In a natural universe, earthquakes .and cosmic rays as well as rainbows and blue skies are intrinsic parts of the scheme.

The slow churning of Earth’s iron-rich, molten outer core sends energy toward its surface. As a result, continents glide slowly across the globe. Occasionally as a continent slips along, moving a centimeter or so each year, it snags on an adjacent land mass. The pressure accumulates until in the jolt of an earthquake, the snag breaks and the continent continues its journey. Like the honey and the sting of the honeybee, we need the Earth’s molten core, though we would prefer to avoid the quakes it produces.

For life, a planet must be close enough to a star (the Sun) to receive the heat needed to keep water liquid. At that modest distance, massive doses of cosmic radiation accompany the warming rays of the star. The same motion of the molten iron core that propels continental drift and in the process produces occasional earthquakes continuously shields us from that radiation. The moving slurry of iron and rock deep within Earth produces and maintains a magnetic field that surrounds it. The force of that field deflects much of the cosmic radiation that would otherwise bathe the planet’s surface with lethal doses of energy. Stopping the motion of the Earth’s core would put an end to earthquakes, but it would also eliminate the protective magnetic field. The biblical Creator has the ability to form stars without lethal radiations. But they would not be natural. They would offer absolute testimony to the existence of the Creator.

Mutations of the genome only rarely produce the tragedy of a crippled child. Most often these errors are corrected or discarded long before birth. The rareness of deformity attests to the efficiency of our protective genetic program. But occasionally a random mutation slips through. Obviously, an omnipotent Creator could remove all randomness from nature. Crippled children and hereditary diseases would be no more. But the price would be too high. Without some degree of randomness, all events and all choices in the universe would be totally predeter-mined by unyielding laws of nature, the physics and chemistry of all reactions. We would be mere robots. Our every thought and action would be fixed by the immediately preceding chemistry of our bodies and the conditions of our environment. The future would be totally controlled by the past.

Freedom in nature-so that not every stellar system is a life-nurturing solar system-and freedom of will-so that a given stimulus produces a variety of responses-are traits of the divine contraction the tsimtsum, which brought our universe into existence. Whether tsimstum is divinely essential in universe formation or a deliberately chosen aspect of the design of our universe is a question we cannot answer. It is, however, the reality of our existence. In nature, free will and the potential for tragedy go hand-in-hand.

The world around us presents a web of facts from which we learn. Seeing through this web and discovering justice and righteousness (Deut. 6:18) is the challenge. Considering that the human brain has the capacity to store the information contained in a fifty-million-volume encyclopedia, we ought to be sufficiently wise to

succeed at the task, if we just apply ourselves.

Unfortunately, on an absolute level, we do not observe the world as it is. Before we can assimilate a “fact,” the external objective reality of our world must pass through a series of biological and mental filters. The data are no longer date. They are personalized summaries of the external facts. As the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So is color, along with a host of other sensory perceptions. No wonder the spies that Moses sent to search out Canaan prior to the Israelite entry into that land came back with a report that they were like grasshoppers relative to the “giants” that populated Canaan (Numbers 13:32,33). Objective reality evades our human grasp.

The human brain is layered, with the outermost part, the cerebral cortex, accounting for over 60 % of the total brain mass. The cortex gives us the ability for critical analysis. Here is where most of those fifty million volumes of our mental encyclopedia are stored. The cerebral cortex’s capability for logic might come up with truth every time were it not that beneath it lies the limbic layer of the brain. This layer feeds the cortex with a range of emotions, feelings, prejudices, and lusts that color the objectivity of our “analysis.”

Reason might be able to filter out the emotions and come up with absolute truth if the limbic were the end of the tale. But it is not. Just below the limbic lies the r-complex. The aggression, territoriality, and greed that influence our thoughts arise here. Our inherent subjectivity makes Spinoza’s concept of absolute justice derived by reason an illusion. Lawyer Alan Dershowitz remarked that his clients consistently managed to justify their acts to their own satisfaction, even if not to the courts’.

If we could construct a being without these lower levels of the brain , reason alone might produce a just and righteous world. Truth without the mask of self-interest could shine through. For millennia, scholars have pondered the characteristics of such a pure being and have concluded that not even this would be the solution. Without the lusts for accomplishment and control which originate in the more primitive parts of the brain, we might never have the drive it takes to build a world, to have “dominion over the earth” (Gen. 1:26).As with the forbidden fruit, good and evil come together.

In his popular book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, . Harold Kushner claimed that God is limited. Kushner suggested that there are regions into which God’s power cannot extend and that is why bad happens. Biblically there is no foundation for such an idea. Famines and holocausts do not occur because God is limited. The Bible itself informs us repeatedly that through tsimtsum and the occa- sional hiding of the divine presence, God allows them to happen as part of the divine scheme. What seems to be divine indifference lies not in some inherent limit to the Creator. Rather it is the foundation of our free will.

Animals have choice because, according to the Bible, animals have a ncfesh, and the nefesh provides the freedom to process and evaluate information. Biblically an animal is defined as nefesh hiyah-a living nefesh (Gen. 1:20). In place of the generations required for random mutations to produce meaningful changes in the information held on l)NA, within milliseconds the nefèsh can deliberately alter mentally stored information. The human brain has ten thousand times the capacity for information as has the human genome. The brain has liberated animals from the tyranny of their DNA.

The nefesh, by analogy, might be described as a computer having a self-correcting program set to maximize pleasure and survival. ( I use the computer as a metaphor only, with no judgmental intent of a direct similarity between aspects of life and computers.) Animals investigate the environment and from their experiences rapidly learn to optimize their pleasure and their chances of survival. With cunning, a host of animals learn to pass through a maze to gain a reward on the far side. Anyone who has raised a pet knows that many animals communicate via sounds that can be described as primitive, non-complex language. They have sufficient awareness of self to recognize and herd with their own species in the wild. City-bred dogs bark at and play-wrestle with other dogs. Even though there may be close to an order of magnitude difference in size, a Great Dane realizes that the Jack Russell terrier is a tiny version of himself. I have yet to see a dog come upon a stray cat and play- wrestle with it. Cats, they realize, are not dogs.

Animals learn and animals choose. But their options and inclinations are limited according to the inputs the ncfesh gets from the genes and from the body. Avoid pain, seek food, produce, protect, and nurture the young, seek pleasure. Humans also are strongly driven by these basic desires of survival and pleasure. We and all animals are pleasure seekers. But humans have a source of pleasure not evident in other animals. It arises from the ncshama, our link to an all encompas-sing unity that underlies what superficially appears to be a diverse and multifaceted universe. The ncshama whispers to us of a pleasure that transcends our limited physical existence.

The decision-making program of the human nefesh now has two sources of information to consider as it strives for pleasure: the desires and needs of the body and the spiritual goals of the neshama. How I choose to achieve my pleasure determines the quality of my person.



Copyright@ 1997, by: Gerald Schroeder

Chapter 11, ( pgs. 166-172)


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