Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Rejoicing in the Destruction of Others

The Seventh Day of Pesach marks, in the Rabbinic mind, the date the Children of Israel crossed the Yam Suf and Pharaoh and his armies were destroyed in the sea.

As Moses and Miriam lead the people in rejoicing over the destruction of Egypt, the Rabbis imagine angels wishing to join in, only to be told that angels ought to know better than rejoice in the downfall of others. The Israelites are let off such a lofty demand on account of their experience of slavery, but the intent is clear. Proverbs 24:17 states ‘do not rejoice in the downfall of your enemy,’ but the really holy response is beyond abstaining from celebrating the pain of others. The really holy response is empathy – sharing in others’ loss.

Those in shul on second day Yom Tov will know I bemoaned the lack of contemporary edge in the widely publicised new Haggadah edited by the American novelist Jonathan Safran Foer and translated by Nathan Englander. During the week I saw Rabbi Howard Cohen’s review of the Haggadah in the Jewish Quarterly where he makes the same point. Cohen concluded his excellent remarks by noting that ‘at the respective ages of Foer and Englander two of their Jewish American predecessors [Philip Roth and Normal Mailer] were finishing Portnoy’s Complaint and The Armies of the Night.’ Cooper suspects that had Roth and Mailer ever collaborated on a contemporary Haggadah it would have had far more to say about what he calls ‘the greatest Jewish ethical challenge of our times, the plight of the Palestinians’ than Foer’s work. Cooper leaves the precise nature of this ethical challenge unstated. For me it lies in working out how far we, Jews, have moved from our experience in Egypt. Some level of existential threat remains, but we are no longer a people just out of the experience of bondage – we no longer, thank God, have to bake our Matzah on our backs as we flee with nothing. At what point and to what extent should we look first to the angels, who have to find a way to empathise with the destruction of even enemies, and only secondly to the scarred just-liberated Israelites only seven days out of Egypt?

Chag Sameach, Shabbat Shalom


Rabbi Jeremy


Rabbi Cooper's review essay is at

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