Rejoice When Your Enemy Falters?

By Shlomo M. Brody
Friday, March 22, 2013

One of the better-known customs at the Passover seder is to spill out drops of wine while praising God for inflicting upon the Egyptians the miraculous Ten Plagues.  The conventional explanation printed in most Haggadahs, whatever their religious orientation, is that each drop represents a symbolic tear for those who suffered at the time of the Exodus, including the Egyptians.  As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, "We may be uplifted from an event because it represents the triumph of justice, while at the same time identifying with the suffering of the victims."  This interpretation, which originated in the 13th century, is frequently cited along with a talmudic passage in which God berates the celestial angels for wanting to sing Hallel (hymns of praise) while his creatures, the Egyptians, perish in the sea (Megilla 10b).  According to some sources, this is the reason why the Bible does not call Passover "a time of joy" and why Jews do not recite a full celebratory Hallel service after the first day of the festival (Pesikta De-Rav Kahane).  As the verse in Proverbs states, "When your enemy falters do not rejoice and when he stumbles do not feel glee, lest God notice and disapprove and avert His anger from him." (24:17-18) 

Yet the earliest accounts of the custom of spilling wine drops record a diametrically opposite interpretation: “Spill the blood of our enemies while keeping the plagues away from us!” (Maharil)  Morever, the same book of Proverbs also declares, "When evildoers are destroyed, there is joy." (11:10)  This verse was cited by the talmudic sages to explain why the Jewish people burst into song after seeing the Egyptians drown, even as God refrained from such jubilation (Sanhedrin 39b).  Other texts go further and assert that the angels were prevented from singing only until the Egyptians had finished dying (Torah Temimah Exodus 14:20) or until the Jewish people had finished their own song.  One version of the story even states that God's concern was in fact for the Israelites who had not yet fully emerged from the waters. (Torah Shleimah Exodus 14:20)  Full Hallel, according to this strain of thought, is not recited for technical reasons entirely unrelated to Egyptian suffering (Arakhin 10b).  The most forceful challenge to the universalistic interpretation of the verse in Proverbs, however, comes from the talmudic depiction of the way in which Mordechai kicked Haman while using him as a ladder to climb onto his parade horse.  Haman challenged this triumphalism by citing, "Do not rejoice when your enemy falls." But Mordechai responded, "That applies only to Jews; but with regard to your people, the Torah states, 'And you shall tread on their high places.'" (Megilla 16a) 

While one might argue that these sources reflect conflicting beliefs about this sensitive question, many commentators have tried to harmonize the varying sentiments.   A few took the second part of the maxim in Proverbs 24 as evidence that any display of joy is unwise, since it looks like an act of hubris and will draw Divine attention to one's own misdeeds.  Yet several commentators allow people, in specific circumstances, to celebrate the downfall of others, permitting them to express normal human satisfaction at the downfall of evil adversaries.  Some restrict the "do not rejoice" adage to personal rivalries, in which private grudges may inspire one think of a mere opponent as an evil being, as opposed to national antagonisms, in which the evildoer's malevolence is more clear-cut.   Many assert that those directly afflicted by the evil may celebrate with relief, while others should refrain from feeling such satisfaction because rejoicing over the suffering of others leads to moral callousness.  

A different approach emerges in the writings of Rabbi Jonah of Gerona, the 13th-century Spanish scholar.  He believed that the acceptability of an individual’s celebration depended on the nature of his or her intent.  If one's merriment focused on the downfall of another human being, it would be morally problematic.  If one celebrated the removal of evil from the world and the manifestation of Divine justice, however, it would be a laudable act of sanctifying the name of God.  We celebrate the downfall of evildoing, not evildoers.  This sentiment recalls the exhortation of Beruria, who told her husband, beset by irritating antagonists, to pray for the end of sin through their repentance, not the demise of the sinners (Brachot 10a). 

The "do not rejoice" adage is cited, verbatim, in Ethics of Our Fathers (Pirkei Avot 4:19).  The author of the adage, Shmuel Hakatan, simply quotes the verse without adding any additional insights, making this the only time in the entire work that a sage quotes the Bible with no further comment.  Shmuel Katan was a man of great piety (Sotah 48b), who apparently embodied the devoutness necessary to live up to this maxim.  According to Rabbi Abraham Kook, it was precisely because of this virtue that he was chosen by Rabban Gamliel II to compose the Birkat Ha-Minim, the late addition to the Amidah that prays for the downfall of sectarians in late antiquity (Brakhot 28b).  Only someone with such virtue, Kook believed, could exercise proper sensitivity in composing a prayer that appeals for the downfall of others. 

While this prayer has undergone many historical variations, in its current form it beseeches, "May all wickedness perish in an instant.  May all your people's enemies swiftly be cut down."  The text, to my mind, combines both idealism and realism.  Above all, we desire the end of wickedness, and our wish is that this could be achieved entirely through the repentance of the wicked.  But if this does not happen, it would be best for evildoers to be uprooted from the earth, so that we can celebrate a world cleansed of the vices they represent. 

This is not a risk-free position.  Celebrating the death of evildoers while maintaining proper intent is difficult to achieve, leaving the door open for a self-righteousness that can weaken moral discretion and even lead to fundamentalism.  While staying as far from that door as we can, we should remain aware that Passover teaches the importance of drowning evil. We affirm the Divine image in all human beings and hope they will use that potential for good.  Yet we also remember that justice is necessary to bring redemption to the world and that this goal, alas, sometimes requires ten deadly plagues.  

Rabbi Shlomo M. Brody teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel, writes a column for the Jerusalem Post, and directs the Tikvah Israel Seminars for post-high school students.

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