Jonathan Muskat

Should we celebrate the death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi?

This past week, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi was killed in a helicopter crash in the country’s mountainous northwest. As a young prosecutor in Tehran, Raisi was nicknamed the ‘Butcher of Tehran’ for overseeing the execution of thousands of political prisoners. He questioned the integrity of the Holocaust, described Israel as a false regime, and believed that the only solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict was a Palestinian state from the river to the sea. So, should we celebrate that he is now dead?

Not so fast. In Sefer Mishlei, we are told, “If your enemy falls, do not rejoice” (24:17). Consistent with this warning, the Talmud tells a story about the angels wanting to sing when the ancient Egyptians were drowning in the Red Sea, and God responded, “The work of My hands, i.e., the Egyptians, are drowning at sea, and you wish to sing songs?” (Megilla 10b). It seems that we shouldn’t celebrate the death of our enemies because they, too, are creations of God. However, another Talmudic passage states that Mordechai kicked Haman while using him as a ladder to climb onto his parade horse. When Haman challenged this behavior by citing the verse from Mishlei about not rejoicing at the downfall of our enemies, Mordechai responded that this dictum only applies to Jews. We may celebrate the downfall of a non-Jewish enemy (Megilla 16a). If this is true, then why were the angels criticized for singing when the Egyptians were drowning in the Red Sea? Perhaps these Talmudic passages reflect opposing religious views about how we should respond to these circumstances.

Rabbi Menachem Kasher cites a midrash from Tanchuma Yashan that offers a different version of events at the Red Sea. According to this version, the angels did not want to sing while the Egyptians were drowning; rather, they wanted to sing the night before, while the Egyptian army was camped close to the Bnei Yisrael with a flaming wall separating them. The angels knew the Egyptians would be defeated, but God said that “the work of His hands,” i.e., the Israelites, were about to drown in the sea, meaning they had nowhere to go and they were not saved yet, so it was not appropriate for the angels to sing until the Egyptian army was defeated. According to this version of the story, we can certainly rejoice at the downfall of our enemies.

However, Rabbi Yosef Caro rejects this approach and adopts the first approach, ruling that because the angels were not permitted to sing when the Egyptians were drowning, we do not recite full Hallel on the seventh day of Pesach, the day that this occurred (Beit Yosef, Orach Chaim 490). Additionally, the Mishna in Pirkei Avot (4:19) cites Shmuel HaKatan, who quoted the verse in Mishlei about not rejoicing at the downfall of our enemies without providing any additional insight. Shmuel HaKatan was also the individual who composed the “v’la-malshinim” blessing in the Shemona Esrei, which prays for the downfall of our enemies. Rav Kook wrote that only someone like Shmuel HaKatan, who lived with the mantra of not rejoicing at the downfall of our enemies, could compose a prayer asking God to defeat our enemies.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once wrote, “We may be uplifted by an event because it represents the triumph of justice, while at the same time identifying with the suffering of the victims.” We want justice to be served. We want our enemies to be defeated. We will not shed a tear when Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar is killed. That is a normal human reaction. Perhaps the angels shouldn’t sing. Perhaps an angelic figure like Shmuel HaKatan wouldn’t rejoice. And on Pesach, we remind ourselves of this heavenly ideal by not reciting a full Hallel. After all, we ideally want a redeemed world where all humanity repents, and the death of a wicked person represents a failure of mankind on some level. However, it is only human to celebrate when an enemy who wishes for our destruction and has supported acts of terror against our people is no more. But I hope that while we may feel joy that the Butcher of Tehran is dead, we reserve most of our joy for celebrating the heroism, kindness, resilience, and spirit of our own people, not the destruction of other people.

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