Jonathan Muskat

Rejoicing at the downfall of our enemies – a never-ending struggle

Our Jewish community is reeling from the latest attacks in Israel this past Shabbat. The first attack on Friday outside a shul claimed the lives of seven people and it was the deadliest in Jerusalem since 2008. The next day a 13-year-old terrorist shot and seriously injured two Israelis in another terror attack outside Jerusalem’s Old City. One of victims, Nadav Chaim, managed to neutralize the terrorist but he remains in critical condition. Not only are we reeling from the lives that were lost, but we are reeling from the continued awareness that we are confronted by a Palestinian society that incites a 13-year-old boy to become a terrorist and that celebrates these horrific murders. Palestinians in Gaza and Judea-Samaria glorified these attacks by handing out sweets and shooting off fireworks in celebration of the attacks. Yes, it is true that Israel killed nine Palestinians last Thursday in Jenin in a raid targeting a Palestinian Islamic Jihad cell that was reportedly on the verge of launching a major terrorist attack. However, I would hope that reasonable people should recognize the difference between a preventive assault on a terrorist cell and the massacre of civilians who went to shul to daven.

How should we feel towards a society that is led by individuals who want nothing less than our destruction? I think that this is a question that our rabbis debated thousands of years ago when they analyzed a story from this week’s parsha, namely the drowning of the Egyptians in the Yam Suf. On the one hand, the gemara in Masechet Sanhedrin 39b states that the heavenly angels wanted sing when the Egyptians were being destroyed and God criticized them, saying that His creations are drowning so how could the angels sing at this time. The implication of this gemara is that even our sworn enemies are creations of God and, therefore, we should not rejoice in their downfall. That being said, there is Midrash Tanchuma Yashan that has a different version of this story. The angels actually wanted to sing the song while the Egyptians army was on one side of the Bnei Yisrael and the Yam Suf was on the other side because God created a barrier of fire between the two camps. However, God said that His creations are going to drown in the sea so how can the angels want to sing now? God was saying that the Bnei Yisrael, God’s creations, are not out of danger yet. The only place for them to go is into the sea so the angels should not sing yet until after the Bnei Yisrael are completed saved. This version of the story does not preclude us from rejoicing at the downfall of our enemies.

We even have conflicting evidence in Sefer Mishlei. One verse (24:17) states, “binfol oyivcha al tismach,” or “don’t rejoice at the downfall of your enemies,” while another verse (11:10) states, “ba-avod resha-im rina,” or “when the wicked perish there are shouts of joy.” There even seems to be conflicting halachic evidence as to how we should feel about our enemies. The Midrash Harninu (cited in the Beit Yosef, Orach Chayim 490) states that we don’t recite full Hallel on the seventh day of Pesach because the Egyptians were killed, yet the gemara in Masechet Erchin (10a-b) explains that we don’t recite full Hallel on every day of Pesach after the first day because every day after the first day is not unique and is simply a continuation of the first day of Pesach as evidenced by the fact that the number of sacrifices offered on every day of Pesach remains the same.

And I think that we are understandably torn about how we should feel about our enemies. On the one hand, it is only natural to feel hatred towards another nation that wants to destroy us. On the other hand, so many Palestinians who hate us are a product of a corrupt society that promotes incitement against us. In a sense, many of them are victims, too, of the society in which they are raised and they may be unable to change this society. I remember about a year and a half ago participating in a mission to Israel with Mizrachi and the Religious Zionists of America. During this mission, we visited Saad, which is a kibbutz in the southern district of Israel that is less than five miles from the Gaza border. You can only imagine how dangerous it is to live in the kibbutz. A woman from the kibbutz gave us a tour of the kibbutz and told us about what life was like in the kibbutz. The only time that she became emotional was when she turned to us and said, “We have you, but the people of Gaza are held hostage by Hamas.” This woman who must endure periodic rocket fire on a regular basis expressed emotion only when she thought about the average citizen in enemy territory! Maybe this is why on the seventh day of Pesach when we remember the events of this week’s parsha, the splitting of the sea and the drowning of the Egyptians, we celebrate but don’t fully celebrate. We recite Hallel, but not full Hallel. We celebrate a time when we witnessed the miracles of God and we were freed from our Egyptian masters completely because now they were literally dead in the water. However, the celebration is incomplete because we acknowledge the loss of life.

Our enemy will continue to try to kill us and we will continue to try to stop them, even if it means that we have to use preventive measures that may at times claim innocent lives in enemy territory. We commit to mourn over lives lost, but we remain committed to remain moral even in troubling times. Moreover, we are proud, even as we mourn a deadly terrorist attack, that we belong to our society rather than their society.

Years ago, Rabbi Yekutiel Yehuda Halberstam, the Klausenberg Rebbe, wrote the following:

“I was sent to the Warsaw ghetto to perform forced labor with mortar and bricks… One day, as we stood at the top of one of the houses, a strong, driving rain suddenly hit us. The wicked ones pressed us on: “Finish your work; don’t stop.” It was almost beyond human ability…Then one of the oppressed ones, who knew me, turned to me and screamed: “Are you still going to recite ‘You have chosen us’ (a blessing recited every morning, thanking God for choosing the Jewish nation from amongst all the nations) and rejoice as a member of the chosen nation?” I replied that until that day I had not recited it with the proper intention, but that from then onwards, when I said “You have chosen us from all the nations,” I would concentrate more and more deeply, and rejoice in my heart with no bounds…When I saw that he was astounded and bemused at my words, I explained further: “It must certainly be so, for if it were not that ‘You have chosen us from all the nations,’ then I too would become an oppressor. Better that I remain in my present state than become like one of them, God forbid, and happy is my lot.””

We mourn our losses, we celebrate our victories while tempering our celebration when our victories cost human lives even of our enemies, and we are proud to be part of the Jewish nation.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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