Monday, May 2, 2011

What is the proper blessing on hearing of the violent death of an Amalekite?

Anyone in the U.S. watching network television last night around 10:45 EDT (we might have had a minyan watching network TV) learned about the killing of Osama bin Laden. (People on Twitter learned a little earlier!) It has been an interesting weekend for news. A royal wedding on Friday, a beatification and an assault on public enemy on Sunday. Thank God for Shabbat. We were so busy celebrating a B'nai Mitzvah that we didn't pay attention to the outside world. BTW, both Divrei Torah were fabulous!

This morning I was struck by the sounds and images of the rejoicing in Washington D.C. and at Ground Zero over the death of bin Laden (may his name be blotted from memory). While I am as happy as anyone that he is no longer at large, and relieved he is not going to be around to stand trial, I am struck by the rejoicing over someone’s death and the singing of God Bless America.

Tonight we have class for our Kitah Zayin and Chet students (7th & 8th grade) and tomorrow we have Daled - Vav (4th - 6th). What should we say - if anything?

I am leaning toward telling the Midrash from Masechet Megillot of the angels rejoicing at the sea juxtaposed with the rejoicing of the Israelites (as retold by Pinchas Peli):
"It was indeed part of the miracle which occurred at the crossing of the sea, that the Israelites looked at what they saw and were moved to faith. It was this spontaneous faith which erupted in the exalted immortal Song of the Sea. Song and praise has remained ever since the most genuine language of faith. Most of Jewish prayer does not consist of petition and supplication, but of hymns and praises. The Song of the Sea sung by Moses and the Israelites is to this day part of the daily Jewish liturgy.

Singing to God is not without limitations, just as not singing may have fateful repercussions.... Rabbi Yohanan comments that when the ministering angels wanted to sing hymns during the crossing of the sea, God silenced them saying: 'The work of my hand is being drowned in the sea, and you chant songs?' (Babylonian Talmud Megilla 10a).

This comment of Rabbi Yohanan was often quoted to show the humaneness of the Jewish attitude even towards the worst enemies. Even as the Egyptians were chasing the Israelites to push them into the sea and God wrought the miracle making the wheels of their chariots swerve, sweeping them into the water which soon covered chariots and horsemen, even then no wrathful vendetta, but consideration for the casualties of the enemy was the order of the day." - Pinchas Peli, Torah Today, p.67-68
It shows that rejoicing is a very human response, but when we think deeper we have to remember that a human life has been ended. Juxtaposed with spilling the ten drops of wine for the ten plagues, it leads to a more thoughtful response. In an e-mail forwarded to me by Rabbi Jim Prosnit, Arthur Waskow points out that the angels are rebuked, but the humans are not. The celebration is a natural response, but when we hold ourselves to a higher standard (which we teach our students to do), we have to remember that four people were killed.

I agree with the president that justice was served. I am not unhappy that bin Laden is gone - even with the likelihood that his followers will retaliate. But I am uncomfortable serving that dish with lots of relish. I am generally opposed to death penalty. Like the State of Israel, I am willing to make an exception for proven or avowed mass murderers like Eichmann or bin Laden. But I am not certain the lesson I want to teach is that we dance when they are killed. The images were eerily reminiscent of the dancing in Gaza and Ramallah and Tehran on September 11, 2001. America and Judaism both teach us to be better than that.

An apocryphal story: Before the outbreak of the War of Independence in 1948, it is said that Golda Meir met secretly with King Abdullah of Jordan (the current king's grandfather) to urge him to sit out the conflict. It is said that he refused because the political fallout of not joining the war was unacceptable, and possibly fatal to him. The story goes that he apologized to Golda in advance of the attacks. She is said to have replied: "I can forgive you for killing our sons. I cannot forgive you for forcing my children to become killers of yours."

Maybe it is just too soon, but I know that we need to help contextualize this for our students and ourselves. I would truly like to hear your ideas. What is the lesson we need to teach here? What is the blessing? Do we bless the true judge, or do we praise God for wondrous deeds?

Cross-posted to Davar Acher