Is it proper to rejoice in the fall of one's enemy? That question has been on the lips of many in the USA and Israel this week, as Israelis observed the spontaneous joy Americans evinced at the news that arch-terrorist Osama Bin-Laden had been killed.
Even before the news broke close to midnight Washington time on Sunday, rumors had begun spreading on Twitter and Facebook that a daring strike in Pakistan had ended the life of the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks.
Many Israelis shared in that joy, with some even raising a “lechaim” ["to life"] glass of schnapps to the demise of the man who was responsible for over 3,000 deaths, but some – especially in the mainstream media – were critical of the celebration.
Commenting on the footage of crowds of thousands outside the White House and in Times Square praising the operation, the anchor team on Israel Radio's Reshet Bet questioned whether such joy was permitted. “When Israel eliminates a terrorist, Israelis do not go out and dance in the street,” said morning program anchor Karen Noibach, as she went on to describe the crowd as “young, mostly college students that look like they had something to drink.” Certainly, she implied, older, more responsible people – and Israelis – would not behave that way.
But is celebrating at your enemy's downfall unJewish – or something that should, at best, be restricted to drunk adolescents?
There are those who claim that G-d disapproves of such behavior, citing how a the Pesach Seder Jews use their finger to spill a drop of wine from their winedups as each of the 10 plagues is mentioned, in memory of how the Egyptians, who enslaved and murdered the Jews, were punished in the Exodus.
Clearer insight on this point can be seen from the commentaries on the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15) sung by Moses after the splitting of the Red Sea during the same Exodus. The Midrash says that the angels wished to sing praises for G-d's drowning of the Egyptians, and He told them to desist, saying: 'My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you are singing songs of praise?'”
G-d told the angels to desist, but he did not stop Moses from singing a song in praise of the destruction of Israel's enemies, nor did he stop Miriam and the women of Israel from dancing and singing to the refrain "Let us praise the Lord, who has sunk horse and rider in the sea."
The angels did not suffer, but the Jews did, and this Midrash and other sources point to the fact that Judaism sees joy at the fall of one's enemies to be a normal reaction. Regret, as seen in the spilling of the wine, is for the fact that G-d's creations behaved in ways that made their downfall deserved.
One, however, is not allowed to rejoice in the fall of a personal enemy or rival, according to the biblical Book of Proverbs which states "When your enemy falls, do not rejoice". The word "your" is written in the singular to emphasize that it does not refer to enemies of the Jewish people. The prohibition of revenge (Leviticus 19) is also in the singular and aimed at interpersonal relations.
In fact, a Talmudic midrash criticizes the Jewis people for not celebrating the downfall of their enemy. “The Talmud in Sanhedrin 94a says that G-d wished to make King Hezekiah become the Messiah, and the Assyrians that G-d had defeated into Gog and Magog, the final enemy that will persecute the Jews right before the Messiah's arrival,” says Rabbi Jay Shabtai of Kfar Saba.
“But G-d changes his mind, after an angel points out that, unlike King David, who sang many praises to G-d for his victories – the book of Psalms is full of them – and was not even allowed to build the Temple, that it would be improper to bestow this honor on Hezekiah, who did not sing a song of praise. The importance of praising G- for his defeat of our enemies is one reason the rabbis instituted the recitation of Moses' Song of the Sea, which praises G-d for decimating the pursuing Egyptians at the Reed Sea, in our daily prayers.”
The Jewish calendar incorporates praise for G-d's – and the Jewish people's – defeat and decimation of their enemies. “The Purim story, of course, is among the most prominent. Many people don't realize that the feasting was set for the day after the Jews killed tens of thousands of their enemies, and put the fear of G-d into those who survived, with many of them converting to Judaism, the Scroll of Esther tells us,” Rabbi Shabtai says, adding, "it's certainly a natural reaction to feel joy at the removal of an enemy who threatens to destroy you.”
And it's a sentiment shared even by those on the left, he says. “I remember that there were many jokes and happiness back in the mid-90's when the Shin Bet killed Yahya Ayyash of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades with a booby-trapped cellphone. There was plenty of celebrating then by the left, when Rabin was in power."