Osama bin Laden is dead. I heard the news and took a deep breath. I pulled my car over and a sense of relief came over me. I think that there is a measure of justice that was enacted in our world. To reiterate what President Obama has said: “Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader, he was a mass murderer of Muslims.” And he certainly was a man who perverted religion and faith to instigate hatred, intolerance and violence against us and our values.
So why am I so uncomfortable? On the TV, I am seeing chants and celebrations, and despite my sense of relief and comfort with executing justice, I am also saddened — not by bin Laden’s death, certainly not! — but by the revelry that is associated with his death.
I’ll be honest: I do find comfort that he is dead, as difficult as it is to say, because I think the world is safer. I have a hard time believing it brings any closure to families that have suffered from his hands, but I suspect that they may find some level of comfort from his death, too.
But to celebrate someone’s death is different that celebrating a victory.
There is a message (for me) in the fact that we observe Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, last night and today. We remember those whose lights were extinguished far too soon by the Nazis, along with the resilience of the victims, the fighters, and the survivors. Rabbi David Wolpe sees the connection between Yom Hashoah and bin Laden’s death and instructs us as follows: “This is a time to remember those who died, pray for those who fight, meditate anew on wickedness and redouble our dedication to justice.”
Since Passover is so fresh in our minds, I turn back to two key teachings of our Jewish faith. The first is our tradition to remove some of the wine from our cups each time we recite one of the ten plagues during our Seder. If wine is the symbol of joy, then we diminish our joy when we acknowledge how our ancient enemy suffered by taking our fingers and removing some of the wine from our cups. The teaching is reinforced by Rabbi Yohanan who comments that when the ministering angels wanted to sing and celebrate the Israelites crossing the Sea and the water covering Pharoah’s army, God silenced them saying: “The work of my hand is being drowned in the sea, and you chant songs?” (Babylonian Talmud Megilla 10a). It is hard to acknowledge that even our greatest of enemies have some level of God’s divinity in them. But our sages seemed to have thought so.
There are indeed times when our enemies’ deaths are warranted and necessary. Yet our tradition challenges us not to celebrate their deaths; rather, we should show our gratitude for our resilience and survival.
I know that some will read the words above and argue that it is easy for sages who lived centuries ago to make such a pure claim, especially since they never encountered the heinous crimes of a Hitler or a bin Laden. But one of our greatest modern leaders shared the same sentiments. Yithak Rabin, before he became Prime Minister of Israel, was the Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces. He was credited with leading Israel to vicotry in The Six Day War in 1967. The Hebrew University honored Rabin with an honorary doctorate. After he reflected on what it means to be a soldier in Israel and why he, of all people, is getting an honorary degree, he talked about the tremendous spirit of the Israeli soldiers who triumphed over Arab aggression. But then he said:
Nevertheless we find more and more and more a strange phenomenon among our fighters. Their joy is incomplete, and more than a small portion of sorrow and shock prevails in their festivities. And there are those who abstain from all celebration. The warriors in the front lines saw with their own eyes not only the glory of victory but the price of victory. Their comrades who fell beside them bleeding. And I know that even the terrible price which our enemies paid touched the hearts of many of our men. It may be that the Jewish People never learned and never accustomed itself to feel the triumph of conquest and victory and therefore we receive it with mixed feelings.
We should express our joy that justice has prevailed, as we are taught “When the wicked perish, there is song.” There is surely something positive that happens when justice is served and democracy wins. That I can celebrate. I thank God for a strong United States and Israel and the inspiration they both bring to the world. Yet, the Proverb does more than to tell us to be grateful. Are we to celebrate our enemy’s death or rejoice when justice and integrity are victorious? Rabbi Lisa Silverstein Tzur teachers, “I sing, but I sing softly.”
I will sing, too, but softly.