D’var Torah—April 6, 2013 (revised)

 “When Bad Things Happen to Bad People”:

Jewish Theology and the Suffering of Our Enemies

by Treasure Cohen


My inspiration for this d’var Torah was actually born  2 years ago, shortly after Pesach.  I was taking a course at the Jewish Theological Seminary entitled Personal Theology.  We had studied a spectrum of Jewish views on the nature of God, including  the concept of theodicy— defense of God’s goodness, or in the words of Rabbi Harold Kushner’s 1978 best-seller, ¨When Bad Things Happen to Good People.  At the end of this course, we were assigned a final paper on some dimension of Jewish theology and for weeks I struggled to find an appropriate topic.  That is, until May 2, 2011, 4 days before the close of the semester.  On that day, Osama bin Laden was captured and killed by American forces.

Immediately my Facebook page flared up with zealous posts by friends and bloggers who were debating whether it is appropriate to rejoice over his death.  Both sides offered proof texts from the Bible.  Those in in support quoted Proverbs 11:10  “When the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy.”  Those in dissent countered with Proverbs 24: 17:  “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles.”  These voices were passionate—Jew and gentile, lay people and religious leaders, different generations, trying to figure out what is the proper response to the suffering of one’s enemies.  Intrigued by the controversy, I chose my topic:  When Bad Things Happen to Bad People—Jewish Theology and the Suffering of Our Enemies.

Since this event followed so closely the celebration of Pesach, my head was filled with a similar debate that took place thousands of years ago. As recounted from the one perspective, the Jews are joyously liberated from Egyptian bondage, and are miraculously redeemed through the Ten Plagues and the parting of the Red Sea; Yet as reflected from another perspective, the Egyptians—many of them innocent victims themselves—suffer ten terrible afflictions, culminating with the death of their firstborns and the drowning of Pharoah’s soldiers in the Red Sea. God is somewhere in the balance.  Our ancestors struggled to reconcile these two theological perspectives—and played them out in the construction of the Seder ritual, a ceremony that tells the story of Israel’s journey from slavery to freedom, from suffering to salvation.   We continue to engage in the same debate today.

When viewed through a philosophical lens, human suffering can be attributed either to random forces of fate or to an adversary who deliberately wishes to harm us.  In the first case, we have no one to blame for our suffering; in the second, there is an enemy.  If theodicy deals with why the righteous  suffer and the evil prosper, then there is no room for sympathy for the perpetrator of evil within its theology.  Yet, in real life, the designation of who is good and who is bad is not so clearly defined.  Sometimes it depends on who is telling the story, as in the case of many political conflicts.  Sometimes it is contingent upon the “law of the jungle” and the dynamics of power.  Many times there is contention about who is right and “whose side God is on.”  And most disturbingly, in the case of retribution, often the innocent suffer along with the guilty.

Even when there is a clear-cut enemy who has wrought indisputable evil—such as Pharoah or Hitler or bin Laden, there arises the theological question of how we should regard his downfall.  Within our texts there emerge contrasting approaches to this problem.  One of our seminal texts and pieces of liturgy celebrates God’s triumphant power when the Children of Israel were saved and the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea:  Every day in our morning service , as the climax of the Pzukay D’Zimra, and of course in the Torah reading which we recounted at Pesach, we sing the triumphal verses from Exodus – Moshe’s Song at the Sea  (Az Yashir Moshe):


I sing to Adonai, mighty in majestic triumph!

 Horse and driver God has hurled into the sea.


This Biblical victory song praises God as being the warrior who brings destruction upon the forces of evil that wish to destroy Israel.  In the words of the song,   “God’s loving hand” saved the Jews and “shattered the enemy.,”  “consuming them like straw.” Here the Torah—and the liturgy—renders a triumphant theological affirmation of  the chosenness of Israel over enemy Egypt, and there is no regret.

The Talmud, however, contributes another perspective.  In response to the question whether God really rejoices in the destruction of the wicked, the following midrash (Sanhedrin 39b) is recounted:   Following the crossing of the Red Sea, the ministering angels request permission  of God to join in songs of praise.  The Holy One rebuked them, “The creatures I have created are drowning in the sea and you want to sing praises before Me!?” The Pesikta D’Rav Kahana notes that we are commanded to be joyous on Sukkot three times, but no mention is made of joyousness on Pesach in the Bible. Why? . . . because (on Pesach) we do not rejoice when our enemy falls.

This ambivalence between compassionate empathy and righteous vengeance is  clearly played out in the Passover Haggadah, compiled mostly during the Rabbinic period, and  both positions are expressed through the spilling of wine.

During the Seder we recite the Ten Plagues, one by one, accompanied by the action of spilling a drop of wine out of our newly re-filled wine cups, at the mention of every plague. According to Isaac Abarbanel, himself a victim of the Spanish Inquisition, this indicates that the joy of our redemption is not complete.  Even though the plagues were deserved, our redemption was brought about through the suffering meted out to the Egyptians.  Therefore, he concludes,  “When your enemy falls, do not exalt.”

The other mention of emptying our wine cups at the Seder comes while opening the door for Elijah, who is supposed to herald the coming of the Messiah.  At that moment, we recite a passage which is culled from Biblical sources and which was added to the service during the Middle Ages at a time of great suffering for European Jewry.  It is a cry out against all enemies who have oppressed Jews, in the hopes that Divine justice will ultimately be meted out against them:


Pour out your fury on the nations that do not know you, and upon the kingdoms that do not invoke your name, for they have devoured Jacob and destroyed his home. (Psalms, 79:6-7)

Pour out your wrath on them; may your blazing anger overtake them. (Psalms 69:25)

Pursue them in wrath and destroy them from under the heavens of Adonai. (Lamentations 3:66)


This cry for vengeance has been met with other responses that oppose the message of anger, hate, and retribution.  One contemporary Haggadah (The Open Door, CCAR 2002) provides an alternative that also combines verses from the Bible to project a different message:


Give up anger, abandon fury, put aside your wrath; it can only harm.  The call to violence shall no longer be heard in your land, nor the cry of desolation within your borders.  If the enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat.  If she is thirsty, give her water to drink.  For when compassion and truth meet, justice and peace kiss.

(Psalms 37:8, Isaiah 60:18, Proverbs 25:21, Psalms 85, 11)


So what should we conclude?    As Jews, do we rejoice at the destruction of our enemies or do we empathize with their suffering?  The Rabbis who constructed the Haggadah were ambivalent.  They understood that two Jewish values were at odds, and they had to find a way to reconcile them.  Clearly they understood that when Jewish survival is at stake, destruction of our enemies by any means is necessary; but as Jews and human beings, we are also imbued with the value of compassion for the suffering of all of God’s creations—even our enemies.  Thus, through the Seder ritual, they found a way to symbolically represent this paradox:  As we recite each plague—we spill out wine from our full cups to demonstrate that we cannot fully rejoice when our enemies have suffered.

And  since the purpose of the Seder is to “tell your child on that day, saying it is because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt (Ex 13:8),” the Haggadah provides an insightful teaching opportunity to instruct our children—and ourselves– about the appropriate reaction to the downfall of our enemies.  What we should not do is turn the ten plagues into a raucous spectacle—a Seder highlight where we throw locusts or bombard each other with manufactured hail balls.  What we should do is pass on the message of the Rabbis that while we must celebrate our own redemption and survival, we must not lose our humanity and our empathy.  And every year, when we spill the wine from our cups—whether it is Pharoah or Osama bin Laden or another adversary—the message continues to resonate.