After having crossed the Yam Suf safe and sound, the children of Israel bursted into song and praise: “Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Lord, and spoke, saying: I will sing unto the Lord, for He is highly exalted; the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea.” (Ex. 15:1).
The terrible enemy, the Egyptians who sought their ruin, were drowned in the sea and the danger disappeared. The natural response is joy – the euphoria is a perfectly expected reaction.
Nevertheless, there is midrash stating that God does not rejoice in the death of the wicked ones: “Rabbi Yohanan says: Why is it written ‘ and the one came not near the other all the night’ (Ex. 14:20)? The angels wanted to sing a song of praise and God said to them: ‘My creatures are drowning and you want to sing?'” (TB Meguillah 10b and TB Sanhedrin 9b).
There is hence another stance on the same incident in the Yam Suf, on the very defeat of the cruel and merciless enemy. This stance teaches that even though there is deliverance here, there is loss there. Even though it relieved the persecuted one, the situation is far from being perfect. The joy and happiness cannot be the only manifestation when there is loss in lives, albeit this loss is unavoidable when there is no other way to stop the evil.
Rabbi Yohanan’s opinion expresses a deep spiritual understanding that the respect of God’s creatures is a fundamental principle in the Torah. It follows the call in Proverbs (24:17): “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thy heart be glad when he stumbleth“.
The joy after salvation is natural, but we must learn to regulate it when the death appears as the cause of this salvation. We are happy and joyful because of the deliverance, but we are not happy on the death of other human beings.
It is better if the situation was different, if there were no cruel people who wish to humiliate, annul and even annihilate others. It would be better if evil was nonexistent and if every person knew how to respect the lives of the others. But the naiveté of this ideal is not a reason for celebrating the death of the enemy.
The joy is for the salvation and not for the death.
We have learned this is a spiritual lesson in the course of many generations. The Song of the Sea still expresses the primordial human reaction: an exultant joy on the death of the enemy and the end of his threat of killing us. Nevertheless the Torah demands us to transcend the animal level. And we arrived to understand that we must rejoice life and not celebrate death. There may not be another way to get rid of a persistently cruel power but to destroy the source of evil, notwithstanding this is not a reason to rejoice, but to increase the motivation for transforming the human destructive nature into a constructive and positive power.
This understanding finds a strong expression in Purim. The festival does not fall on the date when we were forced to kill in order to defend ourselves. We do not celebrate the bloodshed and the death of our enemies. On that day we fast – it is a time for the accounting of the soul. We rejoice in the deliverance and we celebrate it the morrow of the battle, because we are happy for having been saved, but not because our enemies were killed.
There is a tension between the drive to rejoice when our enemy falls and the respect of life the Torah demands of us. We have to live and to cope with this tension so as to elevate our souls to the level sanctity and to induce ourselves and our fellow persons to build a humankind worthy of sharing God’s likeness.