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Rejoicing in the Death of One’s Enemy

Each human being has irreplaceable value, has dignity, the loss of which should always be a matter of concern
Prof. Daniel Statman is a Shalom Hartman Institute research fellow, a member of the Institute’s iEngage Project , and a member of the Research Team for Applied Military Ethics at the Kogod Research Center for Contemporary Jewish Thought. He is a professor of philosophy at the University of Haifa. His areas of focus include ethics, moral psychology, the philosophy of law, and Jewish philosophy. Daniel is author and editor of many books and articles, including Moral Dilemmas, Religion and Morality, Moral


The text traditionally recited to give praise to God for his goodness is known as Hallel and is taken from Psalms 113-118. It is a part of the liturgy on most holidays, but truly dominates on Pesach: It is recited in full in the evening prayers, later in the evening during the Seder and then, for the third time, in the morning. Given this repetition, it is surprising to find that it is recited only once and in the shortened version, known as "half hallel" (or the Incomplete Hallel), on the seventh day.
Why is this surprising? Because on Nissan 15, the first day of Pesach, the Israelites in Egypt were under no real threat; after the plague of the first born, nobody in Egypt dared to threaten them anymore, and even Pharaoh begged them to leave. By contrast, six days later, the Israelites were once again in grave danger: as they fled in haste, they had the Egyptians pursuing them from behind and the waters of the Sea of Reeds swelling before them.

No wonder they cried to Moses in despair, "Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the wilderness? What is this that you have done to us to take us out of Egypt? Nonetheless, the events of Nissan 15 are celebrated in three recitations of the full Hallel, while the miracle of the salvation as the Sea of Reeds divided to enable them to escape their pursuers, merits only one recital of the incomplete Hallel.

One explanation offered by traditional commentators connects this with a famous Midrash which refers to a dialogue between God and the angels prior to the crossing of the Sea. According to this Midrash, as the angels are about to begin their songs of joy and praise, they were reprimanded, almost chastised, by God: “My creations are drowning in the sea and you wish to sing?!” From this we learn that the joy of salvation must be tempered by sorrow over the destruction of the enemy, as expressed in Proverbs 24:17: "Do not rejoice in the downfall of your enemy." We rejoice in the redemption of our ancestors as they crossed the Sea, but the joy is restrained, because so many Egyptian lives were lost.

However, this humanistic reading of the custom has faced opposition by contemporary writers. Their main point is that the original reference of the expression "my creations" in the Midrash was not to the Egyptians, but to the Israelites. This is evident, or so these writers contend, from other versions of this Midrash, in which it is the danger to the Israelites that constitutes the basis for the commandment to the angels to refrain from singing. In one version, God does not talk about his "creations" being in danger of drowning, but about his "children."

This alternative reading is usually coupled with the proposal that neither the Bible nor the Sages were opposed to expressions of joy following the defeat of an enemy. The following verse from Proverbs (11:10) is regarded as typical: "And when the wicked perish, there is joy."

These conflicting readings reflect two opposing attitudes found in times of national or religious conflict. Both start with the premise that the most important goal, one to which all energies must be channeled, is the defeat of the enemy. In the case of the Israelites vs. the Egyptians, surely God’s main concern is to make sure that the Israelites are neither killed by their pursuers (or by the sea), nor forced to return to Egypt.

But beyond this premise, a gap opens between the two positions. According to the former, there is also genuine concern for the human beings on the enemy side; at the very least, regret for their deaths or suffering, at the most, an active effort to reduce harm and mortality. According to the latter position, the humanity of those who threaten is depersonalized, which has the effect of blocking genuine empathy with the suffering of people on the other side, a fortiori, the adoption of strategies aimed at the actual reduction of enemy casualties.

What we see here is a fundamental question about how to treat one’s enemy: Do the people on the enemy side have names, faces, families, dreams, etc., which call us to treat them not only as the enemy, but also as human beings whose death is regrettable even when overall permissible? Or are they creatures whose status as human beings is completely reduced to whether or not they are part of a collective that poses a threat to us?

The version of the Midrash that describes God as concerned about the fate of the Egyptians expresses the former view. The version that describes Him as concerned about the Israelites expresses the latter.

Both attitudes can be found in the history of social conflict, in almost all times and in all places. They are very much alive today, too, in political and even religious discourse everywhere from Europe to the Middle East. The choice between them reveals one’s commitment – or lack thereof – to the most fundamental idea of morality, namely, that each human being has irreplaceable value, has dignity, the loss of which should always be a matter of concern.

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