Jews dont need Satan concept to extinguish evil passions

On the first anniversary of the April 19, 1995 Oklahoma City bomb blast, the New York Times ran a front-page photograph of Jannic Coverdale, whose two grandsons were among the 168 killed. Holding portraits of the boys, Coverdale posed between their twin beds, each of which was covered with stuffed animals. The caption quoted her:

"A year ago this week, Satan drove up Fifth Street in a Ryder truck. He blew my babies up. He may have looked like a normal man, but he was Satan."

Those anguished words are seared into my memory. No theologian can improve their graphic depiction of radical evil. Though committed by human beings, this evil comes from elsewhere. We are strongly comforted by the simple idea of a world in which the armies of God and Satan battle, reducing us to terrified bystanders. Horrified of evil, we are driven to embrace a sense of order that renders humanity helpless and God diminished.

When Susan Smith in South Carolina sent her two small sons to their watery death strapped into the child safety seats of her Mazda, her minister, the Rev. Mark Long, speculated that Smith was witness to two presentations that night: "God made her a presentation and Satan made her a beautiful presentation." After weighting both in her distraught mind, she opted for Satan's.

In moments of numbness, I envy the clarity and conviction of such statements, the concepts that help Christians find order in the midst of chaos. Explicit dualism seems able to account for evil's ubiquity, this tragic aspect of human experience that defies comprehension.

But this view is thoroughly un-Jewish. Satan and the devil are not part of Judaism's vocabulary.

I return to the painful mystery of evil not only because of the suspected sabotage of TWA flight 800, but also because of the appearance of the Sh'ma in last week's parashah. Judaism's answer to the existence of evil is revealed in a single phrase — al levavkha (upon your heart) — in an inconsequential verse that reads, "These words, which I myself command you today, are to be upon your heart."

The verse speaks of the heart as the locus of our unbounded love for God, and we are instructed to articulate that love by embracing God's commandments.

Our lifelong challenge is to internalize a set of beliefs, values and actions that is not self-generated, to take what feels alien to us and make it our own. The words "upon your heart" identify the scene of battle. It is within the hidden confines of the human heart that impulses frustrate ideals. The bloodstained pages of history are but a mirror of many conflicted hearts.

To quote Jeremiah (17:9): "Most devious is the heart; it is perverse — who can fathom it?" Instability inheres in our very nature. We are ever prone to commit evil acts because we are not perfect.

The goal of Judaism is to temper our inner turmoil, to help us subdue our passions so that we might serve God with an undivided heart. The Talmud explains that the Hebrew word lev (heart) in the phrase "with all your heart" is written with a double bet (levavkha) in order to stress that we are obliged to love God with both our inclinations: those for evil and those for good. God's commandments, according to one rabbinic view, are but a regimen for self-improvement.

To conquer the heart, Judaism invests in serious, lifelong education. The centerpiece of the Sh'ma urges us to be our children's first teachers. Opportunities abound for initiating youngsters in God's words and ways. Persistent and responsible instruction can help prevent children from abusing the freedom of choice that is their right.

And because the heart remains full of ferment, each child and every generation must start the task of self-control afresh. Culture is a flawed substitute for heredity. Our genes do not transmit moral achievement.

For Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the end of days is to be marked by no more than a transformation of the human heart. To heed God's laws will become natural. Thus Jeremiah has God's promise: "I will put My teaching into their inmost being and inscribe it upon their hearts" (31:32).

Similarly Ezekiel: "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from you and give you a heart of flesh" (36:26).

Till then the task is ours alone.

And so the Sh'ma implores us to implant the Torah in our hearts. Endowed with freedom, we have no one to blame but ourselves if we fail.