The Death of Bin Laden: Rejoicing and Restraint

[For Congregation Ner Shalom, May 6, 2011.]

I think the week can't go by without talking about the death of Osama Bin Laden. There is, of course, too much to say. I think we all have a lot of feelings, many conflicting. For me, that described my week. Relief, for sure. And horror. Sadness. Possibly some gladness. Then instant guilt about the gladness.

Many in the US have expressed downright joy. I confess that hearing the news, turning on the TV and seeing revelers doing it up big for the cameras twisted my insides in a nauseating way. The jubilation was too much for me after a decade of bloodshed.

It felt like watching Superbowl celebrations. Or hearing the cheers at the end of some action thriller, where the evil genius gets what he deserves, the audience hoots and hollers, and the credits roll.

But Bin Laden was not a bad guy in a movie. He was a real person and he was a symbol of terror. On a symbolic level, his death brings about a certain closure. But in the real world, we don't yet know what actual effect it will have.

Still, can't we be glad at the symbolic importance of his death? Isn't it right to rejoice, just a little? I spent the week being dour about it, and many friends expressed a similar gloom. Then one cousin posted on my Facebook page, "I'm glad the bastard's dead. He would have killed you and every other Jew if he'd had the chance."

Perhaps that's so. And perhaps I am safer that he's gone. Perhaps we all are. And yet it still doesn't make me happy.

When you save a life, says Talmud, you save the whole world. When you destroy a life, you destroy the whole world. Every life is inherently valuable; every life represents an entire world of possibility. Worlds were destroyed in last weekend's raid.

But of course thousands of worlds were destroyed ten years ago at the World Trade Center and beyond, snuffed out at, we presume, Osama Bin Laden's command. Add onto that the over 1000 US military personnel and the many thousands of Afghanis killed in the subsequent war.

While all life is intrinsically valuable, even Jewish law says you forfeit your claim to it when you kill. Killing, in Torah, earns you a death penalty. One who lays a trap to murder is accountable with his life and may not be harbored. So is that what our tradition has to say to us this week? Is that all it has to say?

I found there to be a surprising silence this week among Jewish sources when it came to reacting to Bin Laden's death. Usually something big happens, and my inbox is flooded with Jewish rightwing stuff and Jewish leftwing stuff. But this week? Tumbleweeds.

At last the story of the Children of Israel at the shores of the sea began to pop up in Facebook posts and private conversations. As you recall from this core story of ours, the Children of Israel flee Egypt and are being pursued by Pharaoh's armies. God parts the sea and the Israelites make it across in the nick of time. The water closes in around the Egyptians and they drown.

Poussin, The Crossing of the Red Sea, 1634

The Children of Israel burst into song: ashira ladonai ki ga'oh ga'ah; sus v'rochvo ramah vayam. I sing unto God because He has prevailed; horse and rider have been thrown into the sea!

So what do you recall happens next?

Nothing. They are not rebuked. We all just popularly think they are. They in fact sing out the song. Moses singing and Miriam dancing. But, according to the famous midrash that appears twice in Talmud, the angels begin to join in the singing and it is they whom God silences, saying, "My creatures are dying, and you sing me songs?"

We've generally used this legend to posit a rule that we should not rejoice in the death of our enemies. But the story is subtler than that. The Children of Israel are allowed to rejoice uninterrupted. The angels are not. Why? Isn't there an undeniable truth here? The Israelites were saved from certain death by miraculous means. How could they not rejoice? The angels, on the other hand, however partisan they might feel toward the Israelites, were not in actual danger. And so their celebration is prohibited.

Perhaps the lesson then is that if you're not directly affected, you are called upon to keep a broader view. Be angels of the world, not just backer of your team. Value all life.

So who gets to celebrate Bin Laden's death? Just the close kin of 9/11 victims? Affected military families? And have they in fact been the ones celebrating?

As one of our teens asked the other night when we were discussing this, "Who's to say we weren't all saved when Bin Laden was killed?" And isn't that true also? Who knows what he was planning next? Just today, news was breaking about planned attacks on US railroads and other civilian targets. It could have been any of us next. Weren't we all saved? Is it wrong to celebrate that?

I have no answer for this. In another age, I might have argued that there's a difference between escaping the imminent danger you know about and being released from a danger that's theoretical. But in an age where attacks can be planned and launched secretly from many thousands of miles away, imminence has far less meaning than it used to.

The book of Proverbs says this: "Rejoice not when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles." But how can we, in this world, in these bodies with all their frailty, not rejoice at the death of one who would harm us, when even the angels on high can barely contain themselves?

Another proverb says, "When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices; and when the wicked perish, there is jubilation." A sombre statement of a simple reality. Not a prescription but a description. On some level it doesn't matter what we intend; when the wicked perish, we, the City, rejoice. It is in our nature.

Personally, I'm not there yet. I'm not sure whether I feel any more or less safe than I did last week. I'm sad at all the senseless deaths, all the worlds destroyed. Reveling might in fact be my right, or at least be excusable. But I might sit still and stay quiet just the same.

When all is said and done, there is much we don't know. About Al Qaeda, about Bin Laden, about the operation that ended his life, and about what could happen next. So we must follow what we do know. We must pursue justice as we understand it to the best of our limited ability. And in our own corner of the world, in our own lives, we must pour out whatever love we are capable of. Justice must be balanced by love. Let us keep saving whole worlds, and loving them as well.

Baruch Atah Adonai, Oseh Hashalom.

Blessed be this great and uninterpretable Existence, whose potential for peace is boundless.