34. The Three Kinds of Evil

The Rambam says that there are three kinds of evil in the world. [III, 12] The first is based on the fact that man is a physical and temporal being. Because of this, we are subject to physical ailments, whether based on weaknesses in our own constitutions or exposure to harmful agents in our environments. But creation and destruction go hand in hand; the same temporal nature that requires us to ultimately perish is also what enables us to come into existence. We therefore see that our physical nature, with all its limitations, is the result of God’s kindness. And, despite our limited natures, evils of this type are relatively rare. Most people are in fairly good health and physical defects are rather uncommon.

The second type of evil is the kind that people inflict on one another, such as by physically abusing others. These are greater in number than the first kind of evil but they are still not ubiquitous. It’s pretty uncommon for a person to scheme to rob or kill his neighbor. Large numbers of people can be affected by this kind of evil in wars but, again, these are relatively infrequent in the big picture of all inhabited countries.

The third kind of evil is the type that a person inflicts upon himself. This is the largest category of evils, far greater in number than those in the second class. Only a few people are not guilty of this kind of self-inflicted harm. This type of evil is spoken of by such prophets as Malachi (1:9 – “this has been of your doing”). King Solomon also wrote of it in Proverbs. For example, in 6:32 it says, “one who does this destroys his own soul,” while 19:3 tells us that “the foolishness of man perverts his way.” Solomon also discussed this topic in Koheles (Ecclesiastes). In 7:29 he tells us, “God has made man upright but they have come up with many thoughts.” These thoughts bring evil upon man.

The evils that a person brings upon himself are because of his vices, such as a desire for more food, drink and sex than is actually necessary. People engage in too much of these things, or they enjoy them inappropriately, and it causes them both physical and spiritual injury. Since the soul resides in the body, if one accustoms himself to superfluous amenities, he simultaneously conditions his soul to crave unnecessary things. This is especially bad when you consider that actual necessities are relatively few in both number and required quantities, while superfluous things are potentially without number.

People’s thoughts can become so twisted that they’re in constant agony over their inability to acquire as much silver or gold as someone else. They will expose themselves to great danger in order to acquire things they don’t really need. When they come to ruin through their own decisions, they blame God. They curse the circumstances they blame for their inability to acquire as much wine, women and song as money could buy as if the world exists solely for their gratification. Some go so far as to disparage God, saying the if He were able, He surely would have created a world more fair than this one.

Wise people, on the other hand, live their lives consistent with the words of King David in Psalms 25:10, “All the paths of God are mercy and truth to those who keep His covenant and His testimonies.” Those who keep their own role in the universe in context see God’s mercy and truth in everything. Rather than railing against God’s judgment, they seek to better understand His ways. Their needs are modest – food and clothing in limited quantities – and they are happy with their lot. In truth, all the self-inflicted injuries stem from a desire for that which is unnecessary, so that man cannot be satisfied that his actual needs have been met.

The world supports the Rambam’s assertion in this matter: we see that the more necessary something is, the cheaper, more abundant and easier to acquire it is. A person can only survive without air for a short while, and it’s everywhere, for free. Man can survive without water for a few days; while not as abundant as air, it is still more plentiful and cheaper than food. Types of food that are more necessary, such as bread, are cheaper and easier to acquire than luxury items. Gold, jewels, ivory and pearls, however, are completely unnecessary for a person’s existence. These are rare, expensive, and difficult to obtain. This demonstrates God’s kindness, since a world in which silver and diamonds were plentiful but water and bread were rare would be a terrible scenario indeed. If one person should happen to have more precious metals or gems than another, this is a fluke of no real consequence. The wealth adds nothing to what he really needs, nor does lack of it deprive another person of his actual necessities. This is the meaning of Exodus 16:18, “The one who gathered much had no surplus, while the one who gathered little lacked nothing.” This was not only true of the manna in the wilderness, the Rambam tells us; it’s always true.

And so we see God’s kindness towards His creation in two ways: He provides everything we need in the proper amounts, and He treats everyone equally. Many verses reflect this idea, such as Psalms 145:9, “God is good to all; His mercies are over all His works.”