Friday, January 10, 2014

Can We Empathize With Those Whom We Deem "The Enemy"?

In the context of the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea, which is read this week in Parashat Beshallach, we find a Midrash with a profound insight. 

On the verse "Neither went near the other all night long" (Exodus 14:20) Rabbi Yochanan (Tiberias, Third Century) comments that when the Egyptians were drowning in the sea, the ministering angels (malachei hasharet) wanted to sing a song of rejoicing, but God silenced them:
“The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and you want to chant songs?” (Talmud, Megillah 10b)

According to this Midrash, as the waters of the Red Sea come sweeping down on the drowning Egyptians, God prevents the angels from singing, despite the evilness of the Egyptians who oppressed the Hebrews and kept them in slavery for hundreds of years. The Egyptian soldiers, too, are God's creatures, and we cannot rejoice in their death.  Even when we are being attacked, we are to be considerate of the casualties of the enemy. 

Why, then, were the Israelites allowed to sing Shirat Hayam, the "Song of the Sea"?  

As Rabbi Pinchas Peli points out, the angels had not gone through the hell of suffering in Egypt. They were not delivered from decades of oppression and slavery. Therefore, it was improper for them to sing and rejoice. But the Israelites, who had gone through the agony and suffering in the hands of the Egyptians, could not be stopped from singing. 

Even so, a careful scrutiny of the Song of the Sea shows it does not contain any rejoicing in the deaths of the Egyptians. The Israelites were allowed to sing, but their song is one of happiness of being rescued, of deliverance from their cruel oppressors, not an expression of schadenfreude

We do not rejoice when God's creatures are killed, even if they persecuted us. The most evil person is still a creation of God, containing the image of God within. Thus, rejoicing at the death of any creation of God violates our moral code. 

Two Passover rituals reinforce this message:

1. During the Seder, we remove ten drops from the wine cup when recounting the Ten Plagues that killed many wicked Egyptians. 
2. During the last six days of Passover, we are not allowed to recite the entire Hallel (special prayer of praise to God) and instead say the abridged version, in deference to the Egyptians who died. 

In Jewish thought and culture, we focus on eliminating evil, not annihilating the people who do evil. We always prefer that evil will be eliminated from this world by changing people's behavior rather than their death.  

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