There are some theological questions that are just unfair to ask a Jew: Do you believe in heaven and hell? “Meh…not really….but sorta...but not really.” Do you believe in Satan? “Um…no, but yes, well, kinda.”
There’s no easy answer to these questions. If you want to make an attempt, though, the first step is to ask someone their definition of the term at play. Do Jews believe in the fire and brimstone of an eternal damnation place called “hell”? No. Do we believe in Satan – aka the Devil – a powerful, supernatural entity that is the personification of evil and the enemy of God? No.
But that name – Satan, or rather sa-tahn – does come right out of our sacred scriptures. We see it particularly in this week’s Haftarah portion from Zechariah. So let’s try to understand it. First thing to know: except for perhaps one place in Chronicles, the word satan is not a proper name in the Bible. Satan simply means “adversary.” The Bible characterizes haSatan (the satan) as an accuser; a prosecutor in God’s celestial court. HaSatan is a trickster figure, one that encourages God to test humans and their loyalty to Adonai. In this role, haSatan is relatively powerless and cannot speak or take action without God’s permission.
The satan of Jewish tradition is not the ruler of some dark underworld, nor an adversary of God. Rather, haSatan drums up trouble. HaSatan sets obstacles in our way and tries to push us from the Divine path.
But how does it do this? To say that haSatan acts directly in our lives would give this figure body and power. Instead, the rabbis explain, haSatan is the adversarial urge within us. HaSatan is our evil inclination – that imperfect side of ourselves that strays us from doing good. It is that very human voice that harasses us and seduces us down the wrong path.
There’s a Talmudic tale (Gittin 52a) that illustrates this more nuanced understanding of the satan character: “There were two people whom Satan incited so that every Friday afternoon they fought with one another. Rabbi Meir visited there and restrained them for three Friday afternoons until he made peace between them. R. Meir subsequently heard haSatan say: ‘Woe that Rabbi Meir has removed that man (meaning himself) from his house.’”
Two important things to highlight in this story:
1) HaSatan calls himself a man who has been expelled from the home. This tips us off to something significant: haSatan is associated with human urges and weakness.
2) Friday afternoon. Timing is everything. The story says that haSatan would surface in the home just before Shabbat. Shabbat is supposed to be the time of wholeness and peace, but with this strife emerging just before, neither peace nor wholeness was possible.
HaSatan therefore represents the conflict and disunity that pervade our human lives. HaSatan is the evil inclination that keeps us from a perfected world. If we could only expel it from our lives, as it was expelled from that home, we could live to see a better world. Notice, Rabbi Meir does not offer an enchantment or a prayer – he makes peace between the two people. That act purges the home of haSatan.
If we are to “overcome haSatan” it will not be in some apocalyptic war between God and the Devil. Our tradition presents this figure of “haSatan” as a metaphor for our human struggle to make peace with each other. HaSatan represents a personal, human obstacle we must overcome. It is the constant struggle to forgive one another. It is our struggle to be patient. It is our struggle to just sit and listen.
Just as Rabbi Meir had to return three times to the house, we too have to revisit that nest of wickedness that resides inside all of us. It is not who we are completely, but it is a part of us. It is an inclination our tradition stresses we can control and overcome.
Mishebeirach Avoteinu v’Imoteinu, May the one who blessed our ancestors, the One who tested them, but loved them too, bestow on us the same kindness and the same faith that we too can push aside the adversary of self-doubt and pettiness to see a more united world and a better self. Ken yhi ratzon.