“My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you want to sing?”
– Babylonian Talmud Megillah 10b
It took less than 24 hours for American t-shirt vendors to come up with shirts celebrating the death of Osama Bin Laden: “It Took Obama to Get Osama,” “Voted Off the Planet” and “Public Enemy #1 is Dead.” According to The Washington Post, you can even buy a coffee mug that says “Happy Nosama Day.” Film clippings outside the White House and at Ground Zero in New York showed a cascade of revelers on Sunday night, jumping up and down with excitement.
We all feel immense relief and gratitude that someone who was responsible for so much anti-American sentiment, so many deaths and so many terrorist threats has now lost a global voice, but an ethical question lingers. Is celebrating the death of anyone, even someone as hated and destructive as Osama Bin Laden, an appropriate Jewish response?
This is a complex and important question. To answer it, let’s turn to three Jewish sources.
The book of Ezekiel 18:23 records a prophetic response to this question. ” ‘Do you think that I like to see wicked people die?’ says the Lord. ‘Of course not. I want them to turn from their wicked ways and live.’ ” We don’t desire the death of those who do wrong, even great crimes against humanity. We want them to change. This may be naïve, but the text surfaces not only a spiritual approach to transformation but a profound sense of the value of all human life.
In the Talmud, we find a curious story of a master sage, Rabbi Meir, who was praying for the death of two robbers. His famous wife, Bruria, overheard his prayer and corrected him. “Let sins be uprooted from the earth, and the wicked will be no more” (Psalm 104:35). “It doesn’t say ‘Let the sinners be uprooted’,” Bruria corrected him. “It says, ‘Let the sins be uprooted’.” You shouldn’t pray that these criminals will die; you should pray that they should repent. And then “the wicked will be no more.” Bruria, no doubt, understood that the likelihood of these individuals changing was slim, but our response — especially in the format of prayer — should be to rehabilitate rather than to destroy.
The last source is found in another Talmudic passage. It records a fictional conversation between God and the angels. The Israelites just crossed the Reed Sea after escaping the Egyptians. The water closed in on these enemies while the Israelites broke out in ecstatic singing following Moses’ recitation of the “Song of the Sea” found in Exodus 15. The angels, the text states, wanted to sing but God turned to them and said “My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you want to sing?”
Of course there‘s a desire to sing. There is a need to cry out in joy. But these knee-jerk reactions should be tempered by the larger question of what a human life is worth. Relief is appropriate. Celebration may just cross over a spiritual line. When it says in Genesis that we are created in God’s image it does not single out anyone as an exception to that rule. And if Osama Bin Laden did not treat others as if they were created in God’s image, let us not imitate that primal, vindictive impulse but transform it by affirming the goodness of humanity and the precious gift of life.