I don’t personally celebrate Halloween because it has pagan roots, but as long as the dark forces are on people’s minds, I offer this clarity for you on the topic of Satan.
Sympathy for the Devil
One of the top ten common misconceptions about religion and spirituality is the concept of the Devil. Who is Satan and what is his purpose? Where does the concept come from?
We all sense a craving towards spirituality and meaning, and at the same time we share a desire to do the wrong thing, kill and steal, to insult and eat fatty foods. We intuitively know there is a dichotomy in the world and in ourselves. Did you ever feel like smacking someone even though you knew in your heart it was wrong? (Those of you with teenage children need not even answer that one.)
Flip Wilson used to say “The Devil made me do it.” Of course the Devil can’t make you do something but he can sure tempt you. Life’s circumstances can be tempting from the outside, and we can have desires on the inside. Is that the Devil or your own bad self?
In kabbalah the forces of desire, evil inclination, temptations to stray from morality and spirituality all seem to be one. The three main entities that we find in the texts are Satan, the “evil inclination”, and the Angel of Death, and all represent the same united force.
The Meaning of Life
If you understand well the meaning of life, you have no problem understanding Satan and the “evil inclination”, known as the “yaitzer hara”. We are put on this earth at this time to struggle to connect to the Infinite Being. In order to have an arena of challenge, we must have a desire to go away from God to fight against.
The Satan and yaitzer hara provide the challenge. This force is designed by God and follows strict rules He placed into the spiritual realm. Satan cannot go against God’s will, as an angel or spiritual force, he operates like a puppet of the Almighty, providing the exact spiritual challenges that we need at any given moment in time.
In fact, each and every person is judged based on their own set of circumstances external and internal, which makes it impossible to judge your fellow man because you don’t know their history or internal make-up. Maybe they are naturally a born murderer and hot-head and they have worked hard to control themselves and become just an average rude person. You may think this guy is a big jerk but in reality they are extremely righteous given their challenges. Another person much more pleasant to be with my have been born with a gentle demeanor and has never struggled to make him/herself any better.
To put it a different way, you are put here to make spiritual touchdowns and the Satan is like a linebacker paid to block your path. But the linebacker is purposely designed in a way that you always have the ability to make your way past him. You might not be able to bowl him over; you might have to outsmart him, tell him his shoes untied, fake to the left and go to the right, or some other maneuver. If he stops you, then your job is to review the tape and see how you can avoid him the next time. (The verb “leSatan” means to block and is used in Numbers 22:22 this way. An angel blocks the path of Bilaam when he goes to meet with Balak to curse the nation of Israel.)
The Big Mistake
So the existence of Satan is real and part of daily life. The mistake then is that people think Satan has a separate existence, power, and purpose than God. Many think Satan is somehow avoiding God’s domain and tempting people to sin when God’s not looking. This is not only wrong, but philosophically impossible. Nothing can happen without God’s will accepting it on some level. God wants Satan to tempt us and He wants us to withstand the temptation. He designs the challenges according to our spiritual level and need for growth. If we need to develop patience, God sends Satan to test our patience.
Duties of the Heart by Rabbi Ibn Pakuda tells us that even frum people make mistakes in understanding the nature of God’s omnipotence. We need to be careful not to give the yaitzer hara or Satan any power on their own, they are an extension of HaShem’s will.
Satan does nothing without God’s approval. He’s a servant of God. This is clear from the beginning of the Book of Job that starts with God and Satan having a conversation where God says Job’s a great guy, and Satan says Job is only righteous because he hasn’t been tested with suffering. Let him suffer and he’ll turn against the Lord. God says, ok then go and test him. While this type of conversation may be more metaphor than reality, it shows the basic relationship between God and Satan. The Almighty designed a spiritual universe with angels that help and angels that test. There are prosecuting attorneys, so to speak, and defending attorneys. Satan is the primary prosecuting angel.
We don’t hate Satan, and he doesn’t hate us. He was created to test us, which is our greatest asset and opportunity to accomplish spiritual greatness and closeness to God.