Death of the Evildoer

    Purgatory gained a new resident, and, at least for one year, the solemnity of Yom Hashoah (27 Nisan) was lightened, with the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed by an elite American Navy Seals team in a fortified compound in northeast Pakistan. The details of the raid are worthy of a Hollywood spectacle, and undoubtedly will be in due course, but it is time to celebrate the death of the mastermind of the worst atrocity perpetrated on American soil in history.

    President Obama can rightly claim credit for this success that greatly weakens Al Qaeda’s capacity and influence. The fact that its founder and charismatic leader was killed by the “great Satan” demoralizes terrorists across the globe, removes a symbol of the “rise” of radical Islam, and likely reduces access to the bin Laden family fortune. Since the “fish stinks from the head,” chopping off the head from the snake of radical Islam is a grave setback that allows moderate Muslims, to the extent that they exist, to come forward and reclaim the legacy they assert is theirs. Certainly, there are al Qaeda cells across the world, and the Muslim Brotherhood is on the ascent in every Arab country with public unrest. Hamas quickly condemned the “assassination of the holy warrior,” something that itself should preclude any American acquiescence to the Fatah-Hamas rapprochement and is reminiscent of the celebrations that erupted in Gaza, Ramallah and elsewhere in the Arab world when the Arab terror attacks of September 11 took place.

       Nevertheless, something was missing from the Obama announcement. It was not only the lack of graciousness to his predecessor. Typically, Obama asserted that he made the capture of bin Laden a priority immediately after he took office, implying… that Bush did not make that a priority? President Bush wrote in his memoirs that the failure to capture bin Laden was one of his “great regrets” as president, especially after pursuing him relentlessly for several years. A more gracious president would have acknowledged that this has been an American priority since 2001, and, to a great extent, even going back to the Clinton administration. Yet, the only reference to President Bush was to incorporate his statement after the Arab terror of September 11 and reiterate the cliché that America is not “at war with Islam.”

     What was missing from Obama’s address (besides smoothness; he is a much better speaker with the dual teleprompter that enables him to move his head right and left than he is with the single screen monitor directly in front of him – one reason he consistently eschews the traditional Oval Office address) was joy. Simple joy, but even what President Bush’s critics would have termed “smug satisfaction” had this occurred under his watch. (I recall a great Bush line, in which he referenced the criticism of his “swagger. In Texas, we call that walking.”) It is as if killing bin Laden was an unpleasant task, for which Americans should feel at least some guilt and sorrow; that he deserved it but we didn’t want to do it and we hope the Muslim world realizes it is not about them, it was just one bad apple, etc.  A smile, a gleam in the eye (even when thanking the unit that succeeded,  acknowledging their exceptional professionalism and courage) – show some joy ! Bush (I and II), Reagan, Clinton – they all would have known how to gloat without overdoing it. But Obama underdid it. Whatever happened to “when the wicked perish there is song” (Proverbs 11:10) ? There were spontaneous outbursts by the crowds that assembled outside the White House, in Times Square, and even at Ground Zero –  “USA, USA !” They had it right; Obama’s passion was missing, and somewhat discordant. Why ?

    Defenders will say that he projected seriousness because the war is ongoing, new terror attacks might be in the offing, and we do not want to provoke these attacks through excessive boastfulness (as if terror against innocent civilians is brought upon them by their own deeds, and not the evil of the terrorists). But maybe there is something else afoot  – the liberal’s aversion to war.

     All this is reminiscent of the famous discussion in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 39b) that during the miraculous salvation at the Red Sea, which necessitated the complete annihilation of the Egyptian military, “the Heavenly angels wished to utter a song of praise before G-d but He rebuked them, saying ‘My handiwork (the Egyptians) is drowning in the sea, and you wish to utter a song before Me’?”

     This passage is popularly understood as a reason not to celebrate the downfall of the wicked, and even the reason why we do not recite a full Hallel on the anniversary of that miracle, the Seventh Day of Pesach. (This is based on a Midrash, even though the Gemara Arachin 10a-b offers a wholly unrelated reason for reciting half-hallel that is the operative halachic principle here.)

     Yet, although the angels were rebuked, Moshe and the Jews did sing a most glorious song upon beholding the death of the Egyptians (“I will sing to G-d for He is exalted above the arrogant, the horse and its rider are hurled into the sea… the mighty sank like lead into the water”), a song that we sing every single morning, and an event that we commemorate every morning and evening. And we do recite Hallel on the Seventh Day of Pesach, just omitting a few verses from two of the chapters; it is not as if we don’t celebrate the event at all but are sunk in grief over the loss of Egyptian life. And in a very similar event – the miraculous destruction of the armies of Sancheirev, the Assyrian king, that also took place on Pesach – the king Chizkiah was criticized by G-d for not singing a song of praise over the majestic salvation of the Jewish people and an abrupt end to the siege over Jerusalem (Sanhedrin 94a). So, which is it – do we sing or not sing, do we rejoice (like the crowds of Americans responding to the news of the death of our enemy or do we remain somber (like the Commander-in-Chief) ?

     The answer is in the statement of the Talmud itself: the angels were rebuked by G-d, not the people who experienced the great victory – who endured the suffering and pain inflicted by the evildoer and now lived to see justice done. The “angels” reflect a divine perspective. From G-d’s perspective, evil itself is a terrible waste of human endeavor, and the death of every human being is a net loss. The most wicked individual was created by G-d in the “divine image,” which he then trampled and abused and then forfeited. We are supposed to acknowledge the divine perspective, because it is an aspiration for all human beings.

     But we are human beings, and in the world of human beings, the suffering of innocent people troubles us and the destruction of the wicked delights us. That is why “when the wicked perish there is song” (Proverbs 11:10), and that is why Moshe sang the song that we sing every day since – about G-d’s exaltedness, and the triumph of righteousness that is heralded by the death of the wicked. That is why Chizkiah was punished and, according the Gemara, not designated as the Moshiach – he did not sing when he witnessed the hand of G-d. If we cannot feel joy when the wicked perish, then our love of justice is impaired.

     Certainly, the boisterous and young crowds chanting “USA, USA” were not praising G-d or singing Hallel, which they might have had their educations and upbringing been different. But they were rejoicing in the death of the wicked and the triumph of good, something that should evoke joy and not guilt, and in the President, a facial expression of satisfaction rather than one who looks like he is chewing gravel.

     The war is not over, but yesterday’s accomplishment was a great milestone. Like the death of Saddam Hussein that abruptly ended the fantasy of some Iraqis that he was still lurking and might return to power, the brutal death of Osama bin Laden sends a clear message to all Arab/Muslim terrorists: there is a day of reckoning for all. President Bush vowed in the aftermath of the Arab terror of September 11 that Osama bin Laden would be captured, “dead or alive.”

      He was, and “dead” is better, and an occasion for rejoicing and thanksgiving. So kudos to the President and his team for a job well done, as bin Laden prepares to be greeted by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Saddam and Arafat.

8 responses to “Death of the Evildoer

  1. The difference between how former presidents would have reacted to this, and the way in which President Obama reacted, is in the America over which they presided and preside.
    With the assault on marriage that we are currently experiencing, how can our President rejoice in the victory of the Almighty, when his own policies seek to tear down G-d’s established order?

  2. Anyone can quote pesukim to back up their claims. What about binfol oyivkha al tismach? Surely it is not so black and white that we should rejoice in the death of an enemy. Do we not say a half hallel on the remaining days of Pesach because there is some sorrow over the death of the Egyptians (according to some authorities). Do we not spill out wine when mentioning the 10 plagues?

    • Read a little more carefully what I wrote. “Binfol oyivcha” applies to a personal enemy, not a rasha gamur. If your theory is correct, how did Moshe say the shira ? How do we say it every day ? Read again what I wrote.

  3. This was published today after my piece, from Rav Shlomo Aviner:

    Celebrating after Osama bin Laden’s Death

    With America and the entire world riveted by the US Military’s success in assassinating Osama bin Laden, we felt it important to bring you Rav Aviner’s response to the death of Yassir Arafat (in 577).

    When Your Enemy Falls, Do Not Rejoice?

    It is true that it says in Mishlei (24:17): “When your enemy falls, do not rejoice,” but there are enemies and there are Enemies.
    The Talmud in Megillah (16a) relates that when Mordechai was led around on the horse by Haman, he did not treat him exceedingly mercifully. When Haman questioned him: Doesn’t the verse say, “When your enemy falls, do not rejoice”? Mordechai responded: This does not refer to you.
    Arafat was like Haman. He not only wanted to kill Jews, but actively did so, and left many widows, widowers, and orphans, as well as thousands of wounded and suffering. We could say that every child in Israel has a wound on his soul for a person who was close to him who was murdered.
    It is also true that when the angels wanted to sing and join with the song of the Children of Israel after the Splitting of the Red Sea, the Master of the Universe prevented them, saying: “My handiwork has drowned in the sea and you are singing a song?” (see Sanhedrin 39b and Megillah 10b). This is correct, and yet the Children of Israel did sing! How so? We are not angels. As the Admor of Pisetzna, Rav Kalman Kalonymus Shapira, wrote during the Holocaust (see “Aish Kodesh”): Was an angel ever hit? Was an angel ever murdered? Was an angel ever humiliated? We were! The angels did not suffer as we did in Egypt, so they could not sing. But we did suffer — suffered immensely — and therefore during the Exodus from Egypt “Moshe sang.” And Miriam and the women also went out with singing and dancing after the Splitting of Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptians. And so, for Arafat, as for the Egyptians, we say, “and joy went through the camp” (Melachim 1 22:26) and we say “when the wicked perish, there is joy” (Mishlei 11:10).
    May we be comforted by the building of Jerusalem.

  4. I think many people think that this is end of Al-Qaeda, but knowing how radical they are and how they are organized, I am concerned that they will try to prove their strength in the coming weeks.

  5. I and most other Americans would take President Obama’s somber address over President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” approach every time. Apparently, Rabbi Pruzansky, you hold the opposite.

  6. Indeed.
    Bear in mind, of course, that President Bush never said “Mission Accomplished.” That was a sign hung on the USS Lincoln when their sailors returned from their overseas mission, which had been accomplished. The linkage was media-driven, and one that Bush himself regretted.
    But joy and thanksgiving are appropriate.

  7. Indeed, joy and thanksgiving are appropriate, but the issue is how public should that be? I’m sure there was much celebration in the White House when the cameras weren’t rolling, but you seem to be unhappy that the president was not more exuberant in front of the cameras, that he didn’t know “how to gloat without overdoing it.” To gloat at all would have been to overdo it. It’s clear to most reasonable observers that displaying such an attitude, especially when an international audience (including our fiercest enemies) is closely watching,would have been unseemly and inappropriate. Based on your other comments, one can only conclude that your views on this matter seem to be colored by anti-liberal and anti-Obama bias.

    (By the way, Pres. Bush may have regretted not capturing/killing OBL, but it is well documented that he and his administration publicly played down the importance of finding OBL as soon as the trail got cold — and that was not a devious tactic to lull OBL into complacency. But since you were somewhat generous to Obama, I will also be generous to Bush and commend him for his decision to modestly decline Obama’s invitation to Ground Zero this week, though the ex-pres could rightfully make an appearance.)