When retreating German soldiers stumbled upon the Bielski’s partisan camp in the Lithuanian woods they were startled to discover more than 1200 Jews. In the History Channel’s documentary about the Bielski partisans, survivor Sonya Oshman, describes how these run-away Jews beat to death one of their oppressors. “This is for my mother, this is for my father, for my sister, for my this and my this.” The fierce power of the words is jarringly at odds with Oshman's sweet grandmotherly appearance.
In 2000, two Israeli reservists - a newly married Russian immigrant to Israel and a toy salesman father of three – made a wrong turn on their way to an army base and met a violent death in Ramallah. Pictures of the killers, one triumphantly waving bloody hands, flashed around the world.
September 11, 2001. The Twin Towers. The Pentagon. Flight 93. Nearly 3,000 people were killed in a single day, in attacks orchestrated by a single person.
May 1, 2011. President Obama confirms the death of that person, Osama bin Laden, at the hands of United States forces.
Should we celebrate? Do we wave bloody hands in victory? Do we pass out candy and honk our horns, like Gazans did when members of the Fogel family of Itamar were murdered?
The year is 2448, the 21st of Nissan. The Jews are one week out of Egypt when the powerful Egyptian army catches up with them on the shores of the Reed Sea. Following their miraculous salvation through the splitting of the sea, the Jews stand on dry shores and witness an army of corpses wash up on land. They break into song.
The Talmud [Sanhedrin 39b] describes how the angels gathered in Heaven to sing to G-d and He replied, “My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you want to sing before Me?!”
But He didn’t tell the freed slaves not to sing. In fact, their song has been memorialized in the siddur as part of our daily prayers. (Although an application of this Talmudic teaching is that we do not recite full-Hallel [songs of praises to G-d] on the seventh day of Passover.)
What about Proverbs' admonition (24:17,) “When your enemy falls, do not rejoice?” Why were the Jews allowed to rejoice over the Egyptians’ deaths? Can we do the same with Osama?
One resolution to this can be found in Proverbs itself. Flipping back to an earlier chapter (11:10) we find, “When the wicked perish, there is joy.” G-d cannot rejoice over the destruction that evil people bring to themselves and to the world – but neither does He find comfort in their demise. However their victims can rejoice – but without praises to G-d.
An alternate idea is that while we humans are enjoined from taking revenge – a selfish act – we can call upon G-d to do so, as in Psalm 94: “G-d of Vengeance O L-rd, G-d of Vengeance appear!” Why is this acceptable and even commendable? Because, as long as evil persists, as long as injustice exists, we doubt G-d’s grasp on His creation. Celebrating the triumph of good over evil, of justice over corruption, of the destruction of the wicked, is to celebrate G-d as Master of the World. And that is selfless.
Historical proof of this is seen in a rabbinic enactment establishing the 7th of Kislev as a national holiday in ancient Israel. This marked the death of Herod, the violent and disordered king who ruled Israel with barbarity and bloodshed. The day was celebrated as an expression of relief and joy and his death.
Ultimately, Proverbs is warning us against a destructive mindset, one in which our celebration of others’ misfortunes is carried out with more exuberance and investment than those we hold for our good fortune. Obsessing over the wicked and the question of their eventual fate distracts us from acknowledging G-d as the Ultimate Power.