Torah Reading: First Day Rosh Hashanah: The Comfortable Devil
A more earthbound version of the Devil appears in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. His character Ivan had a very strong sense of the earth’s evil. Unable to
bear the thought of being his father’s murderer, he is overtaken by a bout of fever. In his delirium Ivan meets the Devil in person:
He was a gentleman, or rather a peculiarly Russian sort of gentleman, qui frisat la cinquantaine, going a little gray, with long thick hair and a pointed beard. He was wearing a brown jacket, well cut enough but already rather the worse for wear, at least three years old and thus completely out of fashion.
His linen and his long cravat all spoke of the well-dressed man, but on closer inspection the linen revealed itself as of a dubious cleanliness, and the cravat as much soiled. His check trousers sat well on him, but they were too light and too close-fitting – the sort nobody wears nowadays; his hat was a white felt one, quite out of keeping with the season. In short, a dandy fallen on bad times.
He looked like one of those landed proprietors who flourished during the days of serfdom; he had lived in good society, but bit by bit, impoverished by his youthful dissipations and the recent abolition of serfdom, he had become a sort of high-class sponger, admitted into the society of his former acquaintances because of his pliable disposition, as a man one need not be ashamed to know, whom one can invite to meet anybody, only fairly far down the table.
He is unable to bear the thought of being his father’s murderer, and Ivan pictures the devil as faded gentleman, comfortable to invite to any celebration, as long as he sits “fairly far down the table!” I would imagine the devil who can seduce a son to kill his father as powerful, seductive, wealthy, attractive, but certainly not comfortable!
I think of the devil who pushed Peninah to use her religion and connection with God to do anything at all to get Chanah to pray for a child, even verbal torture, as the comfortable fellow in Ivan’s dream. It is the Yetzer Harah of comfortable beliefs practiced without thinking in ways that can hurt others almost kill!
I was sitting in synagogue and overheard someone say to a rabbi, “I really need to speak to you?”
“I love you and respect you and may have done an indirect wrong. Please, please, can I talk to you?”
“Don’t worry, I forgive you,” and he walked away. His student was heartbroken.
The rabbi had an opportunity to teach and heal. His comfortable belief that we should all be naturally forgiving, hurt his student. The student was so hurt that he has not spoken to the rabbi in three years. The faded but comfortable devil stood at a safe distance and smiled.
Sarah observed Hagar’s “laughing,” and the Midrash seems to take that laugh on a roller-coaster of sins, from idol worship to adultery and murder. The Sages understood that the most dangerous devil is in the comfortable laugh, who doesn’t frighten us, in faded glory, and sitting at a distance. Long before Dostoyevsky, the Sages understood that the Devil who can convince Ivan to murder his own father, only gets a chuckle from us when we see him.