Responding to the Downfall of the Wicked
If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...
The recent death of Osama bin Laden should prompt us to think about the appropriate way to respond to the elimination of evil. How should we feel when arguably the most hated man on the planet meets his end? What is our reaction to footage of Americans uproariously celebrating the news of bin Laden’s demise?
Of course, it is impossible for those not directly affected to appreciate the full impact of his heinous deeds – the US itself and not just specific Americans were terribly traumatised at what they have viewed as an attack on their very way of life and ideals. Yet, it still behoves us to consider what may be a proper and spiritually-sensitive approach to such events.
An obvious starting point is the Book of Mishlei, which insists that: ‘When your enemy falls, do not rejoice; do not let your heart rejoice when he stumbles’ (24:17). This verse is supported by the Talmud’s observation that when the Egyptians drowned at the Reed Sea:
The angels wanted to sing. God said to them: ‘My creations are drowning in the Sea, and you want to sing?’ (Megillah 10b)
This concern for the fate of the Egyptians is reflected in the abbreviation of the celebratory Hallel Psalms said on the latter six days of Pesach. At the Seder, we spill a few drops of wine from our cups when mentioning the ten plagues to recognise the Egyptians' suffering.
Yet there seem to be another stream of sources. Although the angels were not allowed to sing at the time the Egyptians drowned, Moses and Miriam led the entire nation in Song the very next day; we celebrate the downfall of Haman on Purim, often with wild abandon. Another verse in Mishlei (11:10) suggests that 'there is joy when the wicked perish', and the Talmud notes that:
King David did not say ‘Halleluiah’ until he saw the downfall of the wicked, as the verse says: (Tehillim 104) ‘May the wicked perish from the land and let the wicked be no more; bless the Lord, My soul, Halleluiah’. (Berachot 9b)
These sources do not actually contradict each other. However despicable a human being may be, and however much better the world is without them, their death should always be tinged with sadness. At the moment of their demise, the possibility to admit their wrongdoing and do whatever they can to rectify it is lost forever – that is not a time for celebration. Indeed, Beruriah, wife of the Mishnaic sage Rabbi Meir, pointed out to him that it would be preferable for his oppressors to repent rather than be eliminated. He accepted her viewpoint, prayed for mercy and they repented of their evil ways. (Berachot 10a) This is why it was not appropriate for the angels to sing while the Egyptians were drowning.
Once the moment has passed, however, it is appropriate to celebrate – but not the enemy’s death. Instead, it is correct to be glad that the good-evil balance has shifted in favour of good, and that as a result, we are a little closer to achieving our spiritual objectives. We should be glad that bin Laden is no more, yet saddened that his death was the only way in which to eliminate the evil that he represented. The rejoicing at the Sea and Purim focus not on the removal of our adversaries, but on our survival.
In the same vein, the classic commentary Metzudat David notes that the reason there is joy when the wicked perish is 'because while they are yet alive, they harm people'. Sadly, in most cases, only the death of the wicked removes the evil from the world.
Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner explains that there are moments in history when it is possible to gain a brief glimpse of an idyllic world, in which the good are rewarded and the evil get their come-uppance. The spectacular downfall of the wicked, such as happened at the Sea, qualifies. As such, when King David visualised the elimination of the wicked, he felt motivated to say ‘Halleluiah’ for the first time. For a fleeting instant, the world was set to rights
But Psalm 104 is not a vengeful song of the victor, but a beautiful paean to God’s complete control over the wonders of the terrestrial and celestial realms. The psalmist used the downfall of the wicked to emphasis his conviction that it is God, not Man, who runs the world – this is expressed in every facet of existence, from the majesty of the mountains to the chirping of the birds, and most certainly in the eventual demise of those who commit evil.
Our response to the death of bin Laden should be gladness at the elimination of the wickedness he perpetrated, muted by the realisation that there is a great deal of evil left to combat and much work to be done to bring God-awareness to humanity.
Thanks to Rabbi N.S. Liss for helpful suggestions