Friday, May 6, 2011

The death of Osama bin Laden: is this an occasion to rejoice?

(This is an extra posting. A drash on parshat Emor is below.)

The current conversation in the press, blogs, classrooms, dinner tables concerning whether or not it is appropriate to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden – and particularly what to tell our children – intrigues me. As my daughter Rachel pointed out, you can go with either Proverbs 11:10 or 24:17.
When the righteous prosper the city exults; when the wicked perish there are shouts of joy. (11:10)

If your enemy falls, do not exult; if he trips, do not let your heart rejoice. (24:17)
Are we to rejoice at the demise of bin Laden, or restrain ourselves because a human being has died?

Having recently celebrated Passover, the memory of removing wine from our glasses – wine that symbolizes our joy – when we recall the Ten Plagues upon Egypt is freshly in my mind. Does this accord with Proverbs 24:17? We lessen our joy not because of Pharaoh’s downfall, but because innocent Egyptians suffered from the plagues. It is the pain and suffering of the innocent victims (would we apply the term “collateral damage” today?) for whom we feel compassion more than three millennia later.

Also associated with Passover is a famous midrash from the Talmud. In Megillah 10b we are told that when the Israelites crossed through the Reed Sea on the seventh day out of Egypt, and the waters closed in on the Egyptians, the Israelites sang a song of redemption – the Shirat ha-Yam (Song at the Sea, Exodus, chapter 15). The angels in heaven wished to join in Israel’s song of victory by singing “Halleluyah” but God rebuked them, saying: “How can you sing Halleluyah when My creatures are drowning?” God silenced the angels (Psalm 24:17). But God did not silence the Israelites (Psalm 11:10). They were free of their oppressors. And so we sing Shirat ha-Yam each year on the seventh day of Passover.

I worry that we are losing the ability in our society to label what is evil as evil. It is certainly good and appropriate to understand another’s experience, outlook, and narrative – especially those we deem to be our enemies. But one who plots the murder of thousands of innocent people is evil, in fact such a one is a monster. The game of moral equivalence in the name of “tolerance” should not be played in the face of a mass murderer. Have we not learned that? That bin Laden was killed on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day), and coinciding with the birthday of Adolf Hitler, should give us great pause to examine our perspective.

Talmud (Berakhot 10a) tells us that Beruriah, the brilliant and remarkable wife of R. Meir taught a valuable lesson to her scholar-husband. Hoodlums living in their neighborhood were harassing R. Meir. Rabbi Meir prayed for their death. Beruriah quoted to him Psalm 104:35, “May sinners (chata’im) disappear from the earth and the evildoers (r’sha’im) be no more.” There were no vowels yet, making it possible to read words with alternative pointing. Beruriah did just that: do not read “sinners” but rather “sins,” she said. And further, do not read “evildoers” but rather “evil deeds.” (Only a change in vowels makes these readings possible.) If their sinning stops, Beruriah pointed out, there will be no more sinners. Therefore, rather than pray for their death, prayer that they repent.

For powerless people beset by neighborhood hooligans, this may be sage advice. But it does not translate to an international mass murderer who will never repent, whose life’s purpose is to engage in terrorism until he reaches the goal of throwing the royal rulers out of Saudi Arabia and installing in their place a medieval caliphate.

We can rejoice at the death of Osama bin Laden because he was a font of evil and would have spent his life planning more terrorist attacks against innocent people. That does not mean we need to bring out the party hats and streamers, and uncork champagne (though I would happily deliver champagne to the brave Navy SEALs who risked their lives to prevent future deaths and carnage).

I hope parents will teach their children that Osama bin Laden was a loathsome terrorist, a mass murderer who is responsible for the murder of thousands and the suffering of countless people and intended to destroy countless more; therefore his death is a good thing. At the same time, I hope these same parents will teach their children not to hate all Arabs. It’s a message we can remind ourselves of, as well. Our prayer is for the end of evil, and we celebrate taking a life only when that is the only way to protect innocent life.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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