By Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972)
How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever? Will your jealousy burn like fire? — Psalm 79.5
Many modern theologians have consistently maintained that the Bible stands for optimism, that pessimism is alien to its spirit! There is, however, very little evidence to support such a view. With the exception of the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, the rest of the Bible does not cease to refer to the sorrow, sins, and evils of this world.
More frustrating than the fact that evil is real, mighty, and tempting is the fact that it thrives so well in the disguise of the good, and that it can draw its nutriment from the life of the holy. In this world, it seems, the holy and the unholy do not exist apart but are mixed, interrelated, and confounded; it is a world where idols are at home, and where even the worship of God may be alloyed with the worship of idols.
What is our situation in trying to carry out the will of God? In addition to our being uncertain of whether our motivation—prior to the act—is pure, we are continually embarrassed during the act with “alien thoughts” which taint our consciousness with selfish intentions. And even following the act there is the danger of self-righteousness, vanity, and the sense of superiority, derived from what are supposed to be acts of dedication to God.
It is easier to discipline the body than to control the soul. The pious man knows that his inner life is full of pitfalls. The ego, the evil inclination, is constantly trying to enchant him. Should we, then, despair because of our being unable to attain perfect purity? We should if perfection were our goal.
The climax of our hopes is the establishment of the kingship of God, and a passion for its realization must permeate all our thoughts. For the ultimate concern of the Jew is not personal salvation but universal redemption. Redemption is not an event that will take place all at once at “the end of days” but a process that goes on all the time. Man’s good deeds are single acts in the long drama of redemption, and every deed counts. One must live as if the redemption of all men depended upon the devotion of one’s own life.
At the end of days, evil will be conquered by the One; in historic times evils must be conquered one by one.
*Abridged from Insecurity of Freedom.