How might we address the death of a mass murderer?
The Torah describes Moses and Miriam leading the ancient People Israel in a celebratory song after the tyrannical Pharaoh and his Army have been overwhelmed by the waters of the Red Sea. Later, the Rabbis gave a new overtone to the story: “The angels,” they said, “ began to dance and sing as well, but God rebuked them: ‘These also are the work of My hands. We must not rejoice at their deaths!’ “
Notice the complexity of the teaching: Human beings go unrebuked when they celebrate the downfall and death of a tyrant; but the Rabbis are addressing our higher selves, trying to move us into a higher place. (The legend is certainly not aimed at “angels.”) Similarly, we are taught that at the Passover Seder, when we recite the plagues that fell upon the Egyptians, we must drip out the wine from our cups as we mention each plague, lest we drink that wine to celebrate these disasters that befell our oppressors.
I myself would have been a lot happier to see Bin Laden arrested to stand trial, but assuming the report that he violently assisted arrest is true, I have no objection to his having been killed.
Yet I was dismayed by the quasi-sports-victory tone of the celebrations that arose around the country — chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A,” for instance.
What I myself felt was more like “Sad necessity” — and I would have preferred a mournful remembrance of the innocent dead of the Twin Towers and of Iraq and Afghanistan — a thoughtful reexamination of how easy it is to turn abominable violence against us into a justification for indiscriminate violence by us.
Can we now say, “Enough, enough!” — refuse to drink the intoxicating triumphalist wine of celebration, and turn our attention and commitment to end these wars that take on a deadly “life” of their own?
With blessings of shalom, salaam, peace —
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director
The Shalom Center