During Pesach we recite the plagues in which many Egyptians died and sing Shirat HaYam, detailing the horrific drowning of the pursuing army, as the Israelites celebrate that “horse and rider are thrown into the sea”. Yet is it fair to say that the Bible allows us to celebrate the deaths of our enemies?
There are two seemingly contradictory statements in Proverbs: “When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices, and when the wicked perish, there is song” (11:10).
And “when your enemy falls do not rejoice, and when he stumbles let your heart not exalt” (24:17).
So which is it? We have the custom of reciting only half-Hallel on the last six days of Pesach, referencing the Talmudic story that “when the Egyptians were drowning in the Sea of Reeds, the angels wanted to sing. But God said, ‘The work of my hands is drowning in the sea, and you want to sing?’” (Meg. 10b).
We spill a drop of wine when reciting each plague at seder, lessening our joy as we consider the fate of those whom the plagues affected.
In Pirkei Avot Shmuel haKatan repeats: “Do not rejoice at your enemy’s downfall”. Talmud tells of Rabbi Meir, praying for his harassers to die and being reminded by Beruria his wife that his prayer is wrong, we pray for the end of sin, not sinners. He should pray for their repentance.
So while Torah may be ambiguous, Rabbinic Judaism is clear that celebrating an enemy’s downfall is not acceptable. We can resolve the biblical contradiction with a nuanced reading – “enemies” are individuals who hate us, while the “wicked” are not personal adversaries, but can be read as a generic or systemic wickedness.
- Sylvia Rothschild has been a community rabbi in south London for 30 years