The Los Angeles Times headline on November 26 said it all: “In Miami’s Little Havana, Cubans whoop, dance and reflect as they celebrate Castro’s death.”
The story confirmed this, often in graphic terms. For example, the LA Times reported, “One man held up a white banner proclaiming: ‘Rejoice world. Satan’s envoy, Fidel Castro, is dead.’ Another wielded a wooden stake topped with a bloody replica of Castro’s head.”
“We’re all celebrating,” said one reveler to the Associated Press. “This is like a carnival.”
What prompted such unbridled celebration of someone’s death is the identity of the someone — in this case, the dictator Fidel Castro, who himself caused the death of so many innocents, and who ruled Cuba with so heavy a hand that at least a million Cubans fled their homeland over the last half-century.
The enemy is dead. Let’s dance.
The sentiment is one we Jews often have felt. In the mid-20th century, for example, there was a joke of sorts making the rounds, although the name of the enemy changed as the years went by. Thus—
“How do you know that [Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Gamal Abdel Nasser] will die on a Jewish holiday? Because any day [Hitler, Stalin, Nasser] dies will be a Jewish holiday.”
It is hard to argue that cheering the deaths of people who can be referred to only as monsters is wrong, and for time immemorial, it seems, sages, philosophers, commentators, exegetes, and essayists have wrestled with the subject.
Even Jewish liturgy reflects this at times. Each morning, for example, we recite the Song of the Sea (Exodus chapter 15), which opens with, “I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.”
We follow that with a prayer immediately before the morning Amidah that says: “From Egypt You redeemed us, Lord our God…. All their firstborn You killed, but Your firstborn of Israel You saved…. You drowned the arrogant, and Your beloved ones You brought across.”
Such sentiments are understandable, but there is a problem nonetheless, because the Torah and the rest of the Tanach, the Bible, argue otherwise.
A prime text is Exodus 23:4-5. “When you encounter your enemy’s ox or she-donkey wandering, you must take it back to him. When you see the she-donkey of your enemy lying under its burden, and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.”
In other words, if someone hates us, it is okay to hate him back. That hatred, however, must not overtake our humanity. We cannot be so consumed by hatred that we turn away from doing what God expects of us.
We see this in a comment made by Job as he defended himself against accusations of performing some manner of “criminal offense” that “would have denied God above.” Said Job in 31:28-30, “Did I rejoice over my enemy’s misfortune? Did I thrill because evil befell him? I never let my mouth sin by wishing his death in a curse.”
Proverbs, Sefer Mishlei, expands on this theme.
“If your enemy falls, do not rejoice,” says Proverbs 24:17-18. “If he trips, let your heart not exult, lest the Lord see it and be displeased, and avert His wrath from him” to you.
Shmuel Ha-katan, in Pirkei Avot 4:20, quotes these verses directly in describing what he believes is proper behavior.
The biblical scholar Professor Michael V. Fox, in his commentary to these verses, notes that Saadia Gaon, the 10th century head of the Sura Academy, “distinguishe[d] two kinds of rejoicing: ‘Do not rejoice’ prohibits expressing joy in words. ‘Don’t let your heart exult’ forbids even exultation that is silent, ‘In your soul.’”
“Proverbs,” Fox explained, “is concerned with the quality of man’s deepest and hidden thoughts and feelings, for they are the substance of character and determine deeds, as well.”
This concern is made even more obvious in Proverbs 25:21-22: “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; If he is thirsty, give him water to drink. You will be heaping live coals on his head [because you will be dismissing his enmity as irrelevant to your humanity], and the Lord will reward you” for doing so.
“He who rejoices over another’s misfortune,” Proverbs 17:5 warns, “will not go unpunished.”
Of course, Proverbs says this as well (11:10), “When the righteous prosper, the city exults; when the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy.”
Is this a warrant to rejoice “when the wicked perish”? A midrash found in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Sanhedrin 39b seeks to resolve the issue. It says:
“Does the Holy One, blessed be He, rejoice with the fall of the wicked? Is it not written [in 2 Chronicles 20:21 regarding a victory over the Ammonites, that King Yehoshaphat ‘stationed singers to the Lord extolling the One majestic in holiness] as they went forth ahead of the vanguard, saying, “Praise the Lord, for His steadfast love is eternal.”’
[There is something missing here, so] Rabbi Yonatan asked: “Why was ‘it is good’ omitted from this [prayer of] thanksgiving, [as it is stated in the original text in Psalms 106:1]?” Because the Holy One, blessed be He, does not rejoice with the fall of the wicked. As Rabbi Sh’muel ben Nachman said in Rabbi Yochanan’s name…: “At that time [when the Egyptians pursued Israel into the Sea], the ministering angels wanted to sing a song before the Holy One…, [but He] said to them: ‘My handiwork [the Egyptians] is drowning in the sea; yet you sing before Me?”’
Explained Rabbi Yose ben Chanina: “He does not rejoice, but He causes others to rejoice,” not because the Egyptians were dying, but because they, the Israelites, were now truly free.
A weekend reveler in Miami’s Little Havana, Virginia Perez Nunez, echoed this sentiment when she told a reporter, “We’re not celebrating the death of a person. That would be morbid. We’re celebrating the beginning of the end of a dictatorship, of a genocide.”
So may it be His will.