May we celebrate when our enemies perish?
This is not merely an academic question. It addresses issues that affect us all: What attitude should we have toward our enemies? Does Judaism advocate hatred of our adversaries and joy at their misfortune? Surely, it does not advocate turning the other cheek? So how do we deal with people who have crossed us? What does the Torah say about gloating or schadenfreude – “nit farginen” in Yiddish?
These and many related questions are answered in the classic story of the battle between good and evil so vividly captured in today’s Torah reading, which recounts the dramatic pursuit of the Jews by the Egyptians until the shores of the Red Sea. On this very day 3325 years ago the sea miraculously splits, the Jews walk across to safety and erupt in a song of praise to God. The Egyptians follow and drown. The angels are thrilled and sing too, but God stops them: “The work of My hands is drowning in the sea and you sing?!”
Meanwhile, the Jews sing away, and their song becomes so permanently etched in our collective memory that it is repeated daily in our prayers!
So how do we resolve this contradiction and answer the question: May we celebrate when our enemies perish?
The fact that God muzzled the angels suggests the answer is no. The fact that the Jews rejoiced and sang after the splitting of the sea suggests the answer is yes. The fact that we don’t praise God as “good” when our enemies perish – even when we are saved – suggests that there is an inherent contradiction going on here.
This sermon resolves the contradiction, explaining when it is right to rejoice and sing praise, and when it is more proper to keep silent. In so doing it draws on the examples of Rabbi Meier and his wife Bruria, and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son Elazar. It also supplies some life-changing and inspirational lessons from modern day life on how we may transform our enemies.