We have a curious custom at the Passover Seder. At the point where we tell the story of the ten plagues, we spill a little wine from our cups at the mention of each plague. One of the basic reasons given for this is that we are showing compassion for the human beings that suffered from the ten plagues.
We also have a custom to not say the entire series of Psalms that we would regularly say on a holiday during the last 6 days of Passover. Although a different reason is mentioned in the Talmud, the later commentaries state that the custom comes from God stopping the angels from singing his praises as the Egyptians, the “work of God’s hands,” were drowning in the sea.
The issue with this seemingly altruistic view is that it is directly contradicted several paragraphs later by one of the most famous seder songs, Dayenu. The second, third and fourth stanzas all mention how we owe praise to God for executing justice against the Egyptians, their gods, their firstborns, etc…
So how are we supposed to feel? Do we take some satisfaction from the downfall of our enemies? Do we feel compassion for them when they suffer the fruits of their own evil labors?
I think looking to yet another source may resolve this difficulty. In Avot (4:24) Shmuel the Small is quoted to have regularly repeated the following two verses from Proverbs “When your enemy falls, do not rejoice, and when he stumbles, let your heart not exult; lest the Lord see and be displeased, and turn His wrath away from him.” Rabbi Ovadiah Bartenura explains this verse as follows. One should not look at the downfall of his enemy and think that God has done this because one has sent God to do so. Rabbi Ovadiah seems to be saying that we cannot see justice as a personal pursuit. When one rejoices over the downfall of their enemy, they are not celebrating a victory of the scales of justice coming back into balance, they are celebrating a personal victory, feeling that God listened to their anger and brought about the downfall of the other person at their behest.
There is a fine line between this attitude and the attitude of Dayenu. How do we know on which side we sit? When we see someone evil suffer and we feel a thrill, are we wrong, or are we entitled?
Over the years I have seen a fascinating phenomenon among survivors of trauma and abuse. Often, when they either see their abuser suffering, or they have fantasies of exacting revenge, there is a statement of guilt at the feelings of elation. At the very least there is a statement of concern that they feel this good feeling while someone else is suffering. I believe this may be the litmus test to see on which side we stand. Those who have been abused, tortured, whether physically or emotionally, have been introduced to a world where justice seems to not exist. In fact, one of the most terrible distortions that trauma introduces into the life of the one who is traumatized is that the justice that they believed existed was all a farce. The idea of their abuser seeing some of their pain rights that sense of chaos and injustice. And the guilt tells us that it is not about a personal need to change the world to their will.
The abuser manipulates the world to feed their need. We don’t want to become that person. We want justice, not control.
We don’t need to feel shame about wanting what is right. We should feel pride that we don’t distort the world to get our way. When we spill the wine we are making a statement about who we are. We celebrate the justice exacted on the Egyptians because that makes a statement about justice in the world, and there is no shame in that.