02/18/2014 04:54 EST | Updated 04/20/2014 05:59 EDT

A Question of Evil

Apropos of no particular reason, I decided to write about evil. Not that it's difficult to find. No deep-throat type of investigation. But, from whence does it come?

Are we by nature born generous and good, a secular view espoused since the time of Rousseau and the Enlightenment? Do we come into the world with Original Sin, or is it that we are neither kind nor unkind, but "The tendency of man's heart is towards evil from his youth" (Genesis 8:21), so teach kindness to be on the safe side?

Science and the humanities have all weighed in on defining human nature. There are those who believe that we are born a tabula rasa, a blank slate upon which others (culture) create a story, and those who believe that most of the story is already finished (genetics) before we take our first breath. What if Immanuel Kant was right when he said that, "human nature is understood to be composed of selfish natural appetites"? Even in democracies, de Tocqueville (1805-1859) pointed out that "each citizen is habitually busy with the contemplation of a very petty object, which is himself."

Throughout the Bible there are references to care for "the other." In response to the question of evil, the Sages say that we are born neither good nor evil; rather we come with inclinations of the two. To be on the safe side, they say teach goodness, because evil comes so easily.

I think of the evil inclination as one part of human nature, the part of us that is still deeply connected to the animal kingdom-the instinct toward self-preservation-selfishness. And if it is not countered by civility; morals, values and ethics (the goodness), then our innate selfishness will lead us away from paths of righteousness. We will not develop compassion or empathy if we are only feeding our innate selfish needs.

In 1940, in the early onset of World War II, it took Germany a mere six weeks to conquer France. For two years the country was divided between the Northern occupied half and the Southern "Free Zone." Thousands of Jews who lived or made their way to the south survived in relative peace during those years. About 5000 Jews, mostly children, made their way to a small Protestant village, Chambon-sur-ligne, located in the mountains 350 miles south of Paris. In 1942 the Germans went into Southern France and began to round up the Jews to send them to concentration camps where they would be murdered.

There were approximately 5,000 residents in the village of Chambon-sur-ligne. They were descendants of the first French Protestants, the Huguenots. The village was also a place of convalescence for the Germans soldiers. Yet, the families of Chambon-sur-ligne sheltered every Jew that came to their village. They did this knowing full well that they were defying the French government which was collaborating with the Nazis. The villagers provided the Jewish refugees with food, an education, forged identification papers, and escorted many to Switzerland, to freedom.

Were the villagers just born that way? Did they come out of the womb filled with the milk of human kindness willing and able to put the needs of others ahead of their own, like a wolf stopping in the woods to care for a wounded deer? The citizens of Chambon-sur-ligne, led by their pastor Andre Trocmé, had no legal obligation to protect the Jews in their midst. Rather, they felt it was their duty to help people in need.

I suggest that we are losing that sense of obligation and duty. We are losing our individual and collective moral core and our ability to say no to evil.

The problem with evil is that it is insidious. It exists on a continuum and if we don't pay attention, we slide, individually and collectively, into evil action. We choose not to look, not to pay attention or get involved when we hear abusive comments, see others break windows, spray hateful graffiti, loot and burn down buildings, demean, denigrate and round up innocent people.

In the aftermath of evil we come out and ask how or why did this happen as if the heinous act was committed in a vacuum. We look for explanations without first looking into our own hearts.

We do not see that the evil committed by sins of omission is no less than those of commission.

We forget that we are our brother's keeper.