The first time that celebration at the downfall of the wicked is mentioned in the Torah, is the “Song of the Sea”- recited by Moses and the people of Israel in thanks for their deliverance and the destruction of the pursuing Egyptian army. And the verse in Proverbs sets out this dictum for posterity: “When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices, and when the wicked (reshaim) perish, there is song” ( Proverbs 11:10).
However, in contrast to this idea, we find that the Talmud relates a fascinating description of a dialogue between God and the ministering angels, who also wanted to recite a song of praise on this significant occasion.
Said Rabbi Yochanan: the ministering angels sought to sing praise to God; said the Holy Blessed One, ‘the works of My hands are drowning in the sea, and you are singing praise?”(Megilah10b)
This talmudic passage seems to express God’s displeasure at the thought of the ministering angels rejoicing the demise of the Egyptian forces. Furthering this idea, an additional verse in Mishlei states:“when your enemy (oyvechah) falls do not rejoice, and when he stumbles let your heart not exalt” (Proverbs 24:17).
How, then, do we reconcile the two disparate verses from Proverbs? Do we rejoice or not at the downfall of evildoers? Though the subject is complex, the poignant answers provided by our sages are deeply relevant for our times.
In From the Tents of Torah, Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, Chief Rabbi of Ramat Gan, offers an enlightening approach to our question based in the grammatical differences in the two verses quoted above. Rabbi Ariel explains that these two verses are not contradicting each other, but rather are coming to teach the fine line between when rejoicing is an appropriate response to the downfall of the wicked and when it is not. The first verse that describes the wicked refers to them with a general term of reshaim, while the second verse refers to oyvechah in the possessive determiner form, i.e., your actual enemy, foe or adversary who seeks your personal destruction. He extrapolates from this inconsistency that the first verse is referring to wickedness in general, i.e., to the fact that it is appropriate to rejoice when the wicked fall, because their overall wickedness in deed and action departs from the world. The second verse, which cautions against celebrating a personal enemy’s downfall, is intended to remind us that the destruction of a face-to-face adversary is not an opportunity for personal merriment or pleasure (From the Tents of Torah, pg. 121) To this end, when the Jewish People rejoiced at their triumphant crossing of the Sea, it was not an expression of joy for the suffering of the Egyptians. Rather it was a song of praise to God for their redemption from the Land of Egypt and the downfall of the wickedness that perpetuated from that time and place that now was no more.
An additional episode in Parshat Beshalach also relates to this idea, and introduces a deeper dimension to the concept of how we as a Jewish People view our enemies. The verses explain that the nation of Amalek came and attacked the stragglers of the Jewish camp, a most devastating attack so soon after the world had witnessed such positive and miraculous revelations of God by the crossing of the Sea. After Moses commanded Joshua to attack and weaken the Amalekite forces, the verse states: “God said to Moses…‘because I will surely obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the heavens…and he said…a war of God against Amalek from generation to generation”(Exodus 17:14, 16). This command of war with Amalek is further reiterated in Deuteronomy, as it says: “Consequently, when God gives you relief from all your surrounding enemies…you must erase any reminder of Amalek from beneath the skies!” (Deuteronomy 25:19) The verses are clear; Amalek is an enemy of the Jewish People in the greatest possible sense of the word.
It would be logical to assume that the nation of Amalek is our eternal enemy, and all who follow in their line for generations to come are forever and permanently branded. But in fact, the opposite is true. In Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Yosef Caro writes a fascinating note regarding the types of gentiles who may convert and become part of the Jewish People. He writes that while only a third-generation Edomite or Egyptian convert is allowed to marry into the Jewish People, an Amalekite convert may do so immediately (Even HaEzer 4:9). Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz explains: “We see from this that the essence of being an Amalekite is not connected with one’s ethnic origin but with one’s personal orientation…What emerges from this halachic definition is that Amalek is a spiritual state of being, much more than a biological group…” (Talks on the Parshah, pg. 166). The message that arises from the Talmudic dictum mentioned above and the words of Rav Ariel, and Rabbi Yosef Caro is that no ethnicity, race, or culture is evil; rather the concept of wickedness is only regulated towards the realm of a person’s deed and actions.
How we are to relate to enemies and wickedness, and the dichotomy of that relationship, is a truly timeless and relevant lesson for us all. Loving all mankind and striving towards making the world a better place is at the focal point of what it means to be a Jew, as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook explains: “The heart must be filled with love for all. The love of creation comes first, then comes the love for all mankind…All these loves are to be expressed in practical action, by pursuing the welfare of those we are bidden to love, and to seek their advancement…hatred may direct itself only toward the evil and filth in the world…” ( Midot Harayah, The Classics of Western Spirituality, pgs. 135–136). Part and parcel of this is experiencing happiness and rejoicing at the eradication of malevolent, immoral, and evil deeds. However, we must take great caution to ensure that it does not lead to a personal, racial, cultural, or national hatred of our enemies.
The author is a Jerusalem based rabbi and Jewish educator. He served as a non-commissioned officer in the I.D.F. Rabbinate, and is the author of the book “‘A People, A Country, A Heritage-Torah Inspiration from the Land of Israel.”