Parshas Emor (5771)
With the recent killing by U.S. Special Forces of Public Enemy #1 Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, everyone’s been talking about whether or not it is morally appropriate to be cheering and celebrating his death, or the death of any other human being for that matter – wicked though they may have been.
As with everything else, our all-encompassing Torah – with its Divine words and wisdom – “weighs in” on this issue as well, so I would like to share with you what I believe is the Torah’s position on celebrating the death of evil people.
In the Book of Esther that we read each year on the holiday of Purim, the turning point in the story is when the wicked Haman is forced by King Achashveirosh to parade the righteous Jew Mordechai on horseback through the main streets of Shushan, the capital city.
The Talmud in Megillah 16a tells us what happened “behind the scenes” just before the parade began: “Haman then told him [Mordechai], ‘Mount [the horse] and ride’. Mordechai replied, ‘I can’t because I am weak from the days of fasting’. So Haman bent down and Mordechai [stepped on his back and] mounted the horse. As he mounted, he kicked Haman. Haman asked, ‘Doesn’t it say ‘When your enemy falls, do not rejoice’ (Proverbs 24:17)? [Why did you kick me?]. Mordechai answered, ‘Villain! That refers to a Jewish enemy, but about your kind it says, ‘And you shall tread on their backs’ (Deuteronomy 33:29).”
From this Talmudic passage, it seems clear that we are allowed to rejoice at the downfall of our non-Jewish enemies, just as Mordechai “got a kick” out of kicking his enemy, the evil Haman.
Yet this seems to be contradicted by the age-old Jewish tradition of not reciting the complete Hallel on the last days of Passover.
You see, on most Jewish holidays (except for the High Holidays and Purim) there is a mitzvah to recite the complete Hallel, a collection of verses taken from Psalms 113–118 and chanted aloud as part of the Shacharis (morning) prayer service. However, on the last (six) days of Passover, as well on Rosh Chodesh (the “New Moon”), an incomplete version of Hallel is recited, known as Chatzi Hallel, or “Half-Hallel”.
The Mishnah Berurah in Orach Chaim 490:7 quotes a Midrash that explains why we don't recite the complete Hallel on the last days of Passover. It states that on the seventh day of Passover, the Egyptians met their death in the Red Sea, and it isn't appropriate to rejoice and sing [a complete version of] G-d's praises on the anniversary of the date when His creations were dying.
So which is it? Are we allowed to be cheering our enemies’ destruction or not?
We can answer this puzzling enigma as follows:
The Talmud in Berachos 28b relates that when Rabban Gamliel II, the leader of the great yeshivah (Rabbinical Academy) in Yavneh, felt it necessary to compose a blessing (in additional to the original eighteen blessings of the Shemoneh Esrei prayer that were composed five hundred years earlier by the “Men of the Great Assembly”) that G-d destroy the many wicked heretics and informers who were persecuting the Jewish people, he arose in his yeshivah and addressed the sages: “Is there anyone who knows how to compose a benediction against the heretics?” Only Shmuel HaKattan [Samuel the “Humble”] came forward and composed the blessing [known as VelaMalshinim].”
This Talmudic passage is difficult to understand. After all, there were many great sages at the yeshivah in Yavneh who could easily have come up with the words for a prayer against those who were persecuting them. Why was only Shmuel HaKattan chosen for this task?
The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos 4:24 teaches: “Shmuel HaKattan said, ‘When your enemy falls, do not rejoice, and when he stumbles do not allow your heart to be glad; lest G-d see this and it will be evil in His eyes, and He will turn His anger away from him [toward you]’ (Proverbs 24:17-18).
The entire statement made here by Shmuel HaKattan is not his own original idea – it is actually a direct quotation from the Book of Proverbs. Yet Shmuel HaKattan adopted it as his motto. He lived his whole life by this dictum that it is improper to rejoice at the downfall of the wicked. Only if one’s joy is totally rooted in the vindication of G-d’s honor may he celebrate and rejoice. Otherwise, it becomes nothing more than personal vindictiveness and malicious hatred, and such feelings are inappropriate when G-d’s creations, wicked or not, are being destroyed.
When it became necessary to compose the prayer against heretics and other evildoers, only a man who bore no trace of personal animosity, and whose only interest in the punishment of the wicked was the resultant restoration of G-d’s honor and Divine justice - like Shmuel HaKattan who lived by this motto – could be chosen to set its words. Any other sage who would have composed this blessing – great though he might have been – might have mixed in to the blessing his personal negative feelings and hatred of the wicked – and then the prayer would have been tainted and impure.
We can now return to our original question. Only Mordechai, the great Prophet and leader of the Jewish people, was allowed to kick Haman and rejoice at his downfall, since he was on a high enough spiritual level where he could be sure that his rejoicing was purely for G-d’s honor and nothing personal.
All the rest of us, however, refrain from reciting the complete Hallel on the last days of Passover when the wicked Egyptians were punished and drowned in the Red Sea, because we will likely mix in to our prayers a personal feeling of triumphalism and gloating at the death of the bad guys – and G-d, in His infinite mercy and compassion, does not tolerate the celebration of the death of His wicked children – even Osama bin Laden.
[For an explanation of why the Jews who left Egypt were allowed to recite the Song by the Sea – see Exodus 15:1-18 – as their Egyptian tormentors were being drowned in the Red sea, click on this link on Ohr Somayach’s website: http://ohr.edu/holidays/pesach/ask_the_rabbi/3474]