Is it inappropriate to be celebrating the death of Osama Bin Laden? Is that a Jewish value?
You’ve asked what I could only call a very Jewish question. For one thing, it’s so typically Jewish to feel guilty about rejoicing. Aside from that, the wisdom of our sages on this topic runs deep and thick. When do you know a wisdom is deep? When at first glance it seems full of contradiction.
Let’s start with Solomon the Wise, who writes, “When the wicked perish, there is joyful song.”
Sounds pretty unequivocal. Until you find another statement of the same author, in the same book: “When your enemy falls, do not rejoice, and when he stumbles, let your heart not exult, lest the L‑rd see and be displeased, and turn His wrath away from him.”
The Talmud mirrors the tension. We find: “When the wicked perish from the world, good comes to the world, as the verse states, ‘When the wicked perish, there is joyful song.’”
. . . while in the same volume, the Talmud has already told us, “When the Egyptians were drowning in the Sea of Reeds, the angels wanted to sing. G‑d said to them, ‘The work of My hands is drowning in the sea, and you want to sing?’”
We aren’t the first to note these paradoxes and more. Now is not the time to list every resolution suggested. Instead, let’s get straight to the heart of the matter:
What is so terrible, after all, about celebrating the death of a wicked evildoer? Why would you even think it decrepit to rejoice that a man who himself rejoiced over the demise of thousands of others, and connived ingeniously to bring destruction and terror across the globe, should now be removed from it? Is it so horrible to feel happy that the world has just become a better, safer and happier place?
No, it’s not. That’s perfectly legit. On the contrary, someone who is not celebrating at this time is apparently not so concerned by the presence of evil upon our lovely planet. Those who are outraged by evil are carrying now smiles upon their face. The apathetic don’t give a hoot.
If so, when Pharaoh and his henchmen, who had enslaved our people for generations—mistreating them with the utmost cruelty, drowning our babies and beating workers to death—when they were finally being drowned in the sea, why would not G‑d Himself rejoice?
Simple: Because they are “the work of My hands.” For this, they are magnificent. And a terrible loss.
As another prophet put it, “As I live, says the L‑rd G‑d, I do not wish for the death of the wicked, but for the wicked to repent of his way so that he may live.”
For the same reason, Solomon tells you not to rejoice over the fall of your enemy. If that’s the reason you are celebrating—because he is your enemy, that you have been vindicated in a personal battle—then how are you better than him? His wickedness was self-serving, as is your joy.
But to rejoice over the diminishment of evil in the world, that we have done something of our part to clean up the mess, that there has been justice—what could be more noble?
That, after all, was the sin of Bin Laden: He recognized G‑d. He was a deeply religious man—those who knew him call him “saintly.” He prayed to G‑d five times a day and thanked Him for each of his nefarious achievements. The sin of Bin Laden was to refuse to recognize the divine image within every human being, to deny the value G‑d Himself places upon “the work of My hands.” To Bin Laden, this world was an ugly, dark place, constructed only so that it could be obliterated in some final apocalypse, and he was ready to help it on its way. With that sin, all his worship and religiosity was rendered decrepit evil.
So there’s the irony of it all, the depth and beauty that lies in the tension of our Torah: If we celebrate that Bin Laden was shot and killed, we are stooping to his realm of depravation. Yet if we don’t celebrate the elimination of evil, we demonstrate that we simply don’t care.
We are not angels. An angel, when it sings, is filled with nothing but song. An angel, when it cries, is drowned in its own tears. We are human beings. We can sing joyfully and mourn both at once. We can hate the evil of a person, while appreciating that he is still the work of G‑d’s hands. In this way, the human being, not the angel, is the perfect vessel for the wisdom of Torah.
See Maharsha on Sanhedrin 39b; Midrash Shmuel 4:22.