Imaginal Evil

It’s the eve of Tisha b’Av, the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av, commemorating some of the most nightmarish events in the history of the Jewish people.

As part of the exploration of Imagination as the activity of engaging with the “inner dimensions” of our lives, I am asking today:  How we can enter into the dark side of the Imaginal world?

One way, the most prominent in Jewish tradition, is through the poetry of the lament. The biblical book Eicha or Lamentations describes the disaster after the destruction of the First Temple and attributes the events to the sins of the people and especially their leaders. Eicha means “How?!” as in “How can it be, that such a thing happened!” American slang, with its customary vulgarity, has an expression that captures the idea.

Tisha b’Av has its own darkness.  In its origins – the refusal of Jews to follow God’s command or listen to His prophets – we find the same archetype of self-alienation from God that we encounter in the “fall” from Eden.  But today we are not promised a renewal, even a difficult one like that of Adam and Chava. We mourn and pray in the face of complete darkness, when God “hides his face.” We say Kinot, dirges or elegies, remembering how we were promised only that “your carcasses will fall in the wilderness” (Numbers 14:29) for forty years. We remember also the devastation of the Holy City, exiles and murders throughout Jewish history, and destruction eventually coming to the world (with World War I, which began on Tisha b’Av). The prophet does say, “Daughter of Zion, He will no more carry you away into captivity” (Eicha 4.22), but on Tisha b’Av we do not know when that promise will be fulfilled.

If we don’t like this version, the fall or rebellion of humans followed repeatedly by darkness, penitence and return, we do have other choices. A different mythic framework is a cosmic battle between good and evil:  evil occurs because a force in the universe, operative in humans but also beyond us, perpetually destroys or distorts good works. Humans can only pray, with penance, to be delivered from it. They may experience some gratification in life, but true goodness only after death. This is the message of religions of salvation in an afterlife.

In another form, such as the stories of the Olympian gods of ancient Greece, the gods struggle among themselves, and the sad events on earth are largely the effects of their quarrels. Occasionally a human hero will rise above the fray, but while his efforts are admirable and virtuous, he usually meets a tragic end. The greatness of a human being is the effort of valor (the warrior) or force of character or thought (the ethical man or philosopher), even if it is doomed.

Another version:  Evil or chaos is a force in the world, but good triumphs as the individual follows Spiritual Truth (or an Angel or Teacher as in Sufism) to rise above it, not only for himself but to spread the light to others by example or teaching. Traditional Buddhist teaching is also in this mode, although the usual word is “suffering,” rather than evil.  In its psychological dimension, suffering is caused by humans, not by specific sins but by craving, desire, attachment. When we realize the truth of non-attachment – attaching ourselves only to the Light or enlightenment – we disarm and dispel suffering.

The full Jewish teachings of returning to God combine penitence (like the prayer of a suppliant as on Tisha b’Av), the good deeds of a valorous person (like the hero, not necessarily with a tragic end), and the inner work of striving to conquer one’s ego. The Hasid is somewhat like the Buddhist, determined to “nullify the ego,” and at the same time like the Sufi, to “cling to God.”

Yet the Jewish tradition is not entirely satisfied with this because it’s an individualistic solution. Christianity and Islam also speak of the redemption of the world, not only of individuals. So the “problem of evil” remains, because these myths imply that only as individuals can we escape, and perhaps not for long or not till after death.  (Group salvation might come then, in some religions.)

Perhaps there are other myths that take account of our interconnected state?

How about this?   Evil is relative, and some people are more evil than others. Almost everyone agrees that the most evil are those who willfully dominate others to extract benefit from them.  In this situation, “good” becomes rebellion to correct the imbalance of power, overthrowing domination.

A familiar line representing this orientation is that of Cassius, from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “The fault … is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” Evil triumphs, he is saying, because of human fear or passivity; he advocates assassination. The playwright does not support Cassius, however; murder and overthrow of government is no solution.

Yet, the purity of righteous revolution remains part of modern collective mythology:  the “revolt of the proletariat” in Marxist thought, or “liberation theology.” The idea is that those who have been downtrodden, or the leaders they choose, will rule more beneficently. Even American democracy was established on this foundation:  “When in the course of human events” tyranny triumphs, it is the right of the people to rebel and establish a new government based “on the consent of the governed.”  But in practice, “the governed” meant free, property-owning white men.  Elsewhere, the revolutions have not stayed “pure” either.

The opposite view would be that those who have experience in ruling, whose families have ruled, or who have ruled in other realms like finance or military, will rule best. The idea seems more plausible to the modern psyche than mythic figures, but it is no less imaginal by which, again, I do not mean “imaginary”: they express reality seen in a different light, through the Imagination.  These masters of the universe have replaced good and evil angels, or gods and demons. And like the old gods, they have their “powers” – war instead of thunder, finance instead of fertility. Their losses and gains filter down to other earthlings.

One more modern myth seeks to explain why someone would seek power, even to the point of cruel dominion over others. I have used it myself in these pages.  More specific than “craving” and deeper than “pride,” this myth seeks the origin of both, and finds it in trauma. Trauma of birth, of infancy, of childhood, of a terrifying experience later in life like war, rape, or torture – these are the sources of evil.  A perpetrator of evil must have suffered abuse, and we are seeing the after-effects, sometimes transferred down through generations.  And yet this too reminds me of an ancient imaginal pattern, expressed in the biblical verse from God’s great revelation at Sinai, “I take account of the sin of the ancestors upon the children, to the third and fourth generation of those that hate me, and showing mercy to the thousandth of those that love me…”(Exodus 20:4-5).

Trauma, of course, is also a sprite bursting forth from the imaginal world. Memory, preserved in story, is its vessel.  Which is not to say that the story of trauma is false.  Or that it is true. Neither is the story of sin and iniquity. Such stories are the stuff that we are made of.

Whether the story is about our “inside” or larger forces “outside” probably doesn’t matter much either; only that we are accountable to it.  Truth, after all, is the accumulated result of imaginal tellings to which we have all agreed.  At some point most of us stopped consenting to leprechauns and faeries, and instead became fascinated with quarks and photons.

The natural world is of God’s presenting and the creatures’ consenting.  The creatures also present, to one another and to God, and She consents (or not).

Does it matter which myth you choose?  Yes it does, but not because one is better than another, or because anyone knows “how it will turn out.”  What matters is that it thrills you and energizes you in love of the world and God, and sustains you in courage to resist those who would destroy that love.

Is this not another individualistic choice?  Yes, but it relies on love, and love is inherently shared. That is a discussion for another post.

Tonight and tomorrow we face the darkness.  See your darkness for whatever it is – what terrifies you, stops you dead in your tracks, leaves you desolate, raging, or falling through what seems like an endless abyss.  Feel it:  let the darkness both stir within you, in your heart and your body as well as in your mind.  Speak to it, within it.  You will find its boundaries – for it is not endless – and beyond that you will begin to sense light.  Daughter of Zion, you will sing again.

Seeing with Gratitude

This Shabbat, July 29th, is “Shabbat Chazon,” (or Hazon), because of the first word of the Haftarah (prophetic reading) for this Shabbat.  Chazon means “vision,” namely the vision of Isaiah who in the first chapter of his book lamented the sins of the people, warned of destruction, and yet proclaimed that “Zion will be redeemed with justice” and the city would yet be the “faithful city.” He could witness to the terrible things that had been done and yet could “see through” to a better end.

So we now call it the Shabbat of Vision because, even though we as Jews are in a time of mourning for past destructions, we can also “see through” to a better future.

In my last post I wrote about the work of imagination, the way we learn to see through to a higher level.  One of the ways we do this, in Judaism, is by saying blessings.  A blessing is a verbal acknowledgment not only of our gratitude but also of the potential that is yet to be unfolded.  It is Jewish practice to say a blessing before eating something (as well as after), such as “Blessed are You, Lord….. Who created the fruit of the tree” over an apple, recognizing that a potential will come to us through the apple that we have not yet even tasted.

Frequently in everyday life we express thanks after we have received something, so we think of gratitude as coming “after.” But if we have not yet used the gift, we don’t know yet what it will mean in our lives.  We may have a glimmer, as we contemplate the present we have just opened, but the future is yet unknown. This is also a “seeing through” or seeing beyond.

During a time of mourning – such as the Three Weeks which will end this coming Tuesday — we don’t buy new things, give gifts, or arrange happy celebrations such as weddings.  Yet we do still say blessings every morning for what we have received.  Even when things don’t look good, we are thankful for another day to live and for the capacity to see beyond.

Gratitude is central to a good life precisely because it “sees the good,” setting the foundation for looking beyond.  Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, one of the great Hasidic masters, made “seeing the good” one of his core teachings.  Likewise Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine, wrote that gratefulness is “the heart of prayer.”

Gratitude and blessing settle the heart into a state of goodness and happiness, if only for a short while.  It is definitely “worth while.”

Spiritual Climate Change

The political climate in this country is hot and uncomfortable.

The polis, the political arena, should be a vital public sphere where people seek to agree on common values. With that agreement and a common commitment, lawmakers should formulate policies and programs that express those values, pass the laws needed to implement the programs (pay for them and protect them against unlawful use).  The executive branch should embody those values as well.

But we can only have meaningful politics, a vital public life, if we are clear about shared values.  Values – our concepts of worth and esteem – are discovered through Imagination.  And imagination is a spiritual dimension of life.

Imagination is what happens when our core being reaches into higher sources of beauty and goodness. Those sources are real, not fantasized.  They constitute the Imaginal World.*

Imagination operates most freely from a place of contemplation, concentration, or dreaming – an altered state of consciousness, free of ego, without willful need to decide.

Imagination in a waking state comes when you “see through” the ordinary world to its original order or source.  Examples:

  • You “see through” a line of poetry when you grasp the deeper meaning of its metaphor.
  • You “see through” a person’s kindness action when you are moved, you sense its source coming from a place of original goodness.
  • You “see through” a tree when you recognize in its form both its original “treeness” and the forces – wind and rain and earth – that have shaped its distinctive form.
  • You “see through” the process of death when you enter a house of mourning and feel the thin veil that separates the mourners from the beloved.

The word “seeing” is being used metaphorically here, as you can “see” from the above. Hearing, feeling, all the inner as well as outer senses enter into our perception of the Imaginal World.

When we achieve, or are graced with, an imaginative perception, there is a sense, if only lightly and temporarily, of “being at home.”  A feeling of:  “This is what was meant to be.” “This is what it means to see.”

Such imaginative activity also can occur when we encounter things that have been disturbed or destroyed. We can look at the mass of weeds in an untended garden and, as we say, “see its potential.”  Similarly for a child who has been abused but we “see sparks” of her intelligence and creativity. When things are in complete chaos, we often have to take it slowly, as when we clean up a corner of an attic or basement in order to begin to get a “sight” of how it might come back to order again.  We may have to get rid of a lot of stuff, but then the rest begins to take its place.

How do we apply this to our political life?  We will be just churning our wheels in mud until we have first raised our sights to the level of Imagination.  The political climate will not change until our spiritual climate changes.

Indeed, the very term polis as I used it above is an imaginal perception – the concept that there is a freely created public space of equals, for sharing ideas and hopes of what “our city” can and should be.  Some forty years ago, I read Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, and the idea of the polis has stayed with me ever since. She brought it from ancient Greek philosophical discourse, and “saw through” it, clarified its meaning and drew out its implications for modern society.

So this is the direction we must turn.  We must begin again the work of Imagination, for our common life together, seeing through the morass we have let it become.

But we can start with ordinary life. You can find dozens of examples, every day, of ways you “see through” to the higher / deeper dimensions of your own life and those around you.

Notice them.  Be inspired by your own work of Imagination.

(Share your thoughts, examples, and of course ask questions in the comments section.)



* This term comes from Henri Corbin, a scholar who specialized in Sufism; it was adopted by James Hillman and other archetypal psychologists who developed Carl Jung’s ideas. (See Tom Cheetham’s books on Corbin, especially All the World an Icon.)  From my perspective in Jewish mysticism, the Imaginal World corresponds in many ways to what Jewish mystics have called the World of Creation (Yetzirah).

Mourning and Returning Home

At this time of year in the Jewish calendar, I think of two stories, episodes in the life of two peoples. I will tell them without names and dates for you to contemplate the parallels.

Story #1:   Once upon a time, a great empire expanded in a series of wars and battles. From the east a new and powerful monarch arose whose armies marched across the lands, bringing many weaker peoples under the empire’s control.

One particular country, however, resisted the conquest. At the beginning, the king of this country had quietly submitted, watching to see what would happen, but after a few years realized that the great empire would destroy the civilization of his ancestors, so he withdrew his support. Then the foreign armies poured forth, and he was killed.

His son, only 18 years old, was left to face the armies. He could not fight their power, and so was taken away into captivity, the land of the conqueror, along with all his princes and soldiers, with the women of the court and the craftsmen and smiths.

The young king’s uncle was appointed king in his place, as the puppet of the great emperor. He reigned eleven years and then rebelled, trying to establish independence. In battle he lost his eyes and was taken away into captivity also, and the capital city and its temple were burnt down.

The young king was not killed, however, and 37 years after being taken prisoner, when he would have been 55, he was released from prison by a new emperor, and was given a place of honor – still in the land of captivity, .

Yet he and his people did not forget their homeland, and waited to be allowed to return. It would be 80 years from the departure of the first exiles and 70 years after the destruction of the great capital city and temple, till a new king, a new dynasty would arise that would allow them to return.


Story #2.    Once upon a time, a great empire expanded in a series of wars and battles. From the east a new and powerful leader arose whose armies marched across the lands, bringing many weaker peoples under the empire’s control.

One particular country, however, resisted the conquest. At the beginning of the invasion, the head of this country, a holy leader and monarch, had just been appointed head of state. He quietly watched to see what would happen and engaged in peace talks, but it became clear after four years that the talks would not be successful. Meanwhile, the great empire was forcing changes that he foresaw would destroy the civilization of his ancestors. Rebellions were beginning to spread to his capital in the mountains. As the foreign armies came nearer, he was warned that he was likely to be killed.

Only 24 years old, and in a country without strong armies, he knew he could not fight. With help from allies and friends, he fled into hiding in a safe country.

The head of another religious dynasty was appointed in his place, as the puppet of the conquering nation’s government, and that government has continued to control him.

In the land of captivity, the holy monarch spent years helping establish refugee communities and supporting his people. As he approached 40 years of age, his work began to gain international recognition; and by his early 50s he was an honored spiritual teacher worldwide and had gained international support for  the cause of independence for his country.

Now, 68 years after the conquest and 58 years into exile, he and his people have not forgotten their homeland, and still await the freedom to return.


The first story is in the Bible (see 2 Kings 24-25).  The second is the story of Tibet since 1950 (see, inter alia, Martin Scorsese’s 1997 film Kundun.)

As Jews, we spend three weeks each year contemplating the destruction of our homeland (and the time referred to in this story was not the only time). We entering into mourning, and discover in that emptiness the creative energy to move forward once again.

When we weep, let us weep and pray too for others in our world who have confronted the face of destruction and strive to revive and renew the treasures of their collective life.


In the Wilderness

This particular post takes some leaps that may be difficult to absorb. On the one hand, it builds on the psychological insights discussed in the last post. On the other, it takes up a very different subject, the biblical story of the ancient Israelites particularly in the book of Numbers (BaMidbar, which means “In the Wilderness). Biblical scholar Avivah Zornberg has explicated both Exodus and Numbers in a way that bridges psychoanalytic theory and the collective experience of the Jewish people portrayed in those books. I’m adding an additional leap to use this perspective in understanding our modern situation.

I’m asking my readers to follow patiently as I make these links. I don’t claim that this is a “correct” interpretation of the Bible; rather it is a work of imagination, to engage in thinking about our situation in a different perspective, and feeling our way out of the impasse between utopia and apocalypse.

In a sense, the Bible’s story of redemption of the ancient Israelites represents a utopian project. Although it is God’s idea rather than a human one – the plan having been prophesied to Abraham in the book of Genesis – it depends on the cooperation of the people, and eventually on their persistent effort in settling the land promised to their ancestors. It does fit with the idea of utopia as expressing a desire to “reconcile with that from which we have been estranged,” the estrangement of the intervening generations of slavery in Egypt. But even with God being the chief promoter of this new development, it ran into several stumbling blocks from the people who were to be the beneficiaries of the promise.

Zornberg elucidates the dynamics of the situation, by focusing on the Jewish people’s inner conflicts. These take the form of doubts, complaints, idol worship in violation of God’s commandment, and outright rebellion against their leaders Moses and Aaron. As she says early on, the Israelites’ behavior and attitudes suggest that they were not “ready for redemption.”

For our purposes, we join the timeline at a point after the famous revelation at Mount Sinai and the golden calf episode, for which God has forgiven them (in the book of Exodus). Now in the wilderness, scouts are sent on a reconnaissance mission to spy out the land they are about to enter and settle.

God has promised they will inherit a land of “milk and honey,” and indeed the spies discover it is rich and fertile; they confirm precisely that it “flows with milk and honey.” However, its cities are also well fortified, and the spies see some descendants of an ancient mighty people. In delivering their report, ten of the twelve spies express doubt about their ability to conquer it. The other two spies, Moses’ right-hand man Joshua and his nephew Caleb, counter their fellows’ opinions and strongly advise moving ahead. But, the story continues, the ten spies “spread an evil report,” turning from the simple facts to exaggeration: “The land eats up its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature.” “We were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.” A difficult proposition has turned into a vision of monsters.

This sends the people into paroxysms of despair. They refuse to move forward. “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt, or in this wilderness!” they moan.

They see only death ahead. “Why did the Lord bring us to this land to die by the sword? Our wives and babies will be prey. Isn’t it better to go back to Egypt?” They murmur against Moses and Aaron, ultimately saying to one another, “Let’s set up a leader and return to Egypt.”

Notice how Egypt suffuses their fantasies – and this was not the first time. When they complained about the manna from heaven, they remembered Egypt — “the fish and cucumbers we had in Egypt, melons and onions and garlic.” Suddenly, the future seems bleak, while the past — back-breaking and heartbreaking slavery — is idealized.

The promise of a land of milk and honey, the land of their illustrious ancestors, had resonated in the minds of the Israelites like a return to Eden. But Egypt still hung in the air. Leaving Egypt was like separation from their more recent “mother,” even though a harsh and cruel one. Now, the promised land seems even more cruel. The story echoes those folktales where the children leave the wicked stepmother only to fall into the hands of a witch.

We see the people leaping from one projection into another, from the lost edenic past to a future that is threat rather than promise. Then God condemns the faint-hearted generation to remain in the wilderness for forty years and die there. Faced with failure of the enterprise, they fall into resigned silence. As Zornberg notes, despite all the rebellious talk, most of the generation that marched out of Egypt disappears without a trace in the text. One challenge to the leadership arises, but after that, there is no sign of creative effort or solutions to challenges. A few chapters later, we read of the death of Miriam, and suddenly realize we are near the end of the decreed 40 years. Has anything of import happened? The people complain about lack of water. This is exactly what the previous generation had done when they arrived in the wilderness.

We have here a paradigm for an unresolved inner conflict. The future ideal – the promised land – now seems impossible. The horrific past begins to seem like a refuge. But these are fantasies, projections, which in social and political life then appear as different factions and opinions.

We can see this happening in social movements today. A “return to nature” is proposed as an ecological utopia. But others tell us that nature is becoming terribly distorted. (I just read a review of a book on the Great Lakes that talks about the monstrous – yes, that word is used – species that have been invading the Lakes and destroying their ecology. This is like the people spying out the land and saying, “all the inhabitants are giants.”).

On the other hand, we hear that technology will continue bring more and more wonders. That utopia has for a long time been presented as giving us “labor-saving devices.” Most people still work as much as ever – but many find their labor less valued. Solutions? Return to the values of the rugged frontiersman, or the economics of the Reagan era. Back to Egypt?

Many people have fallen into resigned silence, worried but not feeling effective. Will we soon, like the generations in the wilderness, be crying, “Give us water”?

Zornberg’s observations diagnose this kind of dilemma as the human state of being “unable to mourn,” that is, in the fundamental case of early childhood, unable to accept the loss of the original mother or parent. What happens in healthy development is that the child gradually acquires the ability to accept, invent, and creatively use substitutes. In symbolic play, and later in increasingly rich languages, the child develops imagination. The process can also include episodes of fear and anger connected to the original trauma. Those feelings are often repressed, and can be triggered again when the person faces a threat to their stability.

In the biblical example, after the first trauma of the disappearance of Moses, the people had created a golden calf. This was a inappropriate direction from the biblical point of view, going back to pagan practices like those of Egypt. We might say it was an immature substitute for Moses. God gave them instead the tablets of the law in a portable tabernacle that was also a object of beauty and symbolic potential. This was an object in which they could and did invest their creativity – we could call it a good substitute or “sublimation,” a stable representation of the Divine that did not depend on Moses.

After the “sin of the spies,” the rejection of the land that God had promised them, the situation was more difficult to repair. The people exemplified not only an emotional attachment to a fantasized past (“let’s go back to Egypt”) but lack of faith in God’s vision of the future. One might say that the golden calf had a certain ‘spiritual’ dimension, even if misguided. The later sin had no such dimension. Only with the arising of a new generation – by waiting for time to pass – would there be movement forward.

The deeper meaning of our current situation is illuminated here. Over the last two centuries and increasingly in the past several decades, our cultural moorings have been badly shaken. For generations our societies were anchored to God by strong religious ties; our daily lives were relatively predictable and changes were slow. With the rapid growth of technology and global change, we found ourselves in a new world. It was exciting at first. Like adolescents who couldn’t wait to leave home, we turned our backs on both our “parents,” God and nature, and didn’t speak to them again.

We embraced utopian visions of society and of technology. As we observed, most of those collapsed. Many voices are saying, “Let’s go back to Egypt” — to the traditional religions, to political eras where we vaguely remember some success. On the other hand, the future has become full of unknown monsters, giants in the land. Many voices are frightening us with the threat of apocalypse or ecological collapse.

The utopian vision of technology still amazes us, but as it has gone global and created a new elite, the outlines of the future are no longer clear. Is this an empty, ultimately sterile utopia full of gadgets but no meaning? We are in the Vacant Space, from which God withdrew (or we pushed Him/Her out).

What human development teaches us is that we must reach deeper within ourselves, freeing up the channels of creativity again. We need to bridge the gap between ourselves and God, ourselves and nature; but not in the same old ways. If the climate is changing, our spiritual climate has to change too. And that is in our hands.