Schadenfreude is Not a Jewish Word (The Book of Obadiah)

The book of Obadiah is an angry book; its fury is vented against Edom, a small nation of little geo-political consequence which once dwelt on the east bank of the Dead Sea. Judea’s bitterness was shaped not only by Edom’s allegiance to the Babylonian conquerors of Judea and Jerusalem, but equally by Edom’s jubilation over Judea’s destruction:

“How could you gaze with glee at your brother on that day, on his day of calamity! How could you gloat over the people of Judah on that day of ruin! How could you loudly jeer on a day of anguish! How could you enter the gate of My people on its day of disaster and lay hands on its wealth on its day of disaster! How could you stand at its passes to cut down its fugitives! How could you betray those who fled on that day of anguish!” (1:12-14)

In his anger, the prophet lashed out with the deserved punishment, measure for measure: “As you did, so shall be done to you; your conduct shall be requited.” (1:15) Is it any wonder that Obadiah called for retribution against such cruel behavior? Being the object of another’s schadenfreude is no less bearable than being subjugated.

Schadenfreude is a loanword in English from German and refers to the feeling of joy or pleasure when one sees another fail or suffer misfortune. Scientific studies have shown that this inhuman quality is in actuality quite human. So this prophecy, which was ostensibly aimed at Judea’s enemy, has a message aimed at each of us as well. As Jews, we are sometimes obligated to curb certain very human tendencies. Some of us may be “wired” to find pleasure in the pain of others, most especially our enemies. One could understand from Obadiah’s prophecy that God views such behavior unfavorably. In Proverbs (24:17-18), this idea is stated more explicitly: “If your enemy falls, do not exalt; if he trips, let your heart not rejoice, lest the Lord see it and be displeased, and avert His wrath from Him.”

The Talmud records an exchange between Bruriah and her husband, Rabbi Meir, on a similar theme: There were once some bullies in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood who caused him a great deal of trouble. Rabbi Meir accordingly prayed that they should die. His wife Beruria said to him: “How do you justify such a prayer? Because it is written: ‘Let hatta’im cease’ (Psalm 104:35)? Is it written hot’im (sinners)? It is written hatta’im (sins)! Further, look at the end of the verse: ‘and let the wicked men be no more’. Since the sins will cease, there will be no more wicked men! Rather pray for them that they should repent, and there will be no more wicked people.” He prayed for them, and they repented. (adapted from Brachot 10a)

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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