I’m sorry she won’t be missed…

Helen Thomas died yesterday and in Jewish circles the response has not been all that different from the way people reacted when Osama Bin Laden was finally eliminated.  At the news of bin Laden’s death, there was absolute elation – worldwide, not just from the Jewish community or one singular segment of society. The consensus was absolute – finally, an evil murderer has ceased to kill and destroy. Thank G-d.

Ms. Thomas has always been known as a feisty feminist journalist who was not afraid to say what she thought, period. It didn’t matter the occasion, the audience, the subject, she would just say what she was thinking – no holds barred. And she told every president she served under as part of the White House Press Corps exactly what she thought they should do.

Ms. Thomas’ last public controversy, the one that ended her career and put her on the Top 10 Enemy of the Jews list was a statement that she made on June 5, 2010, saying that the Jews should get the … out of Palestine and go back to Poland and Germany. Wow, what hatred!  But what’s even more shocking than the anti-Semitic sentiment and insensitivity, was the sheer lack of knowledge and understanding of history that her statement seemed to reveal.

Yesterday, Ms. Thomas, at the ripe old age of 92, passed away and the vitriol I’ve heard coming from otherwise refined and polite people has been shocking. Yes, she was rude and yes, she was not considered to be a nice person by most who knew her.  She was indeed in many ways, an enemy of the Jewish people, but is this reaction appropriate?  Normal, for sure.  But is it appropriate for Jewish people to react that way at the news of anyone’s death?

One response I received when I informed someone of Ms. Thomas’ passing said, “Ding dong the witch is dead”.  Other responses were even worse.  My favorite was, “I’m sorry.  She won’t be missed” which I heard as, “I am sorry she won’t be missed.”  It made me think.

I addressed this issue when Bin Laden was killed and I find myself having to have another look. Is rejoicing in the death of our enemies a reflection of Jewish values? Is this how we are taught that a refined spiritual being behaves?

We are told in Mishlei (Proverbs) 24:17 –

“Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.”

So what are we supposed to do with that?  It’s human nature to be happy when our enemy is finally defeated, never again to tyrannize the world.  But perhaps that’s the point.  The point of Judaism is to take that which is normal and to elevate it to a higher level.  To rejoice not that our enemy is dead, but that he/she will no longer kill and destroy on the earth.  Not to rejoice that a bitter, angry, anti-Semitic woman has finally ceased to exist, but to feel pity that a woman with so much potential to change the world in a positive way used those G-d given talents to bring pain and division to an already difficult situation.  That the legacy this woman leaves to the world is not one of building for a better future but of destruction and enmity.

In Judaism, we are taught not only to respond to difficult situations with grace, dignity and refinement, but to stay away from things that would threaten to bring our own soul down.  We do not speak negative speech, even when it might be technically permissible, not as much because of the damage it might do to another, but because of the damage it would do to ourselves.  (This of course does not apply to when we must speak in order to save a life, etc.) We do not steal even a penny because although no one would miss the penny, we do not want to accustom ourselves to the act of stealing.  Period.  And in the same way, we do not rejoice in the death of our enemy.  Not because s/he didn’t deserve to die or because the world won’t be better off without them, but because of what it does to our own soul.

Mrs. Helen Thomas died yesterday.  I am sorry she won’t be missed.