Osama Bin Laden was a despicable human being, and his death is a positive development for mankind. But is it okay to take it a step further? Can we, or perhaps even should we go as far as to openly celebrate his demise?
When I recall the events of 9/11, there’s a part of me that would like nothing more than to dance for joy. But there’s another part of me that can’t forget the crude images of Palestinians distributing candy in the streets on that terrible day. Of course, I realize that they were celebrating the death of innocent victims, while Osama was anything but innocent. Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder whether a celebration like that on our part would lower us to a level dangerously similar to theirs.
I’ve seen some interesting attempts to answer this question; some making use of God’s well-known and oft-quoted rebuke of the ministering angels at the splitting of the sea: “My creatures are drowning in the sea and you are singing praise!”(Megillah 10b) Reference to this source is certainly appropriate, but those who quote it tend to ignore an obvious problem: God wasn’t bothered by the song of praise sung by the Jews themselves. In fact, that song is deemed holy enough to be incorporated into our daily prayers. Which leaves us with a troubling question: Why was it okay for the Jews to celebrate at the sea, but not for the ministering angels?
Our mystical tradition teaches us that God had to somehow diminish, or hide, His otherwise overwhelming, infinite presence in order to create the universe. Although the true nature of this “hiding” is beyond our finite ability to grasp, one thing we know is that it’s ultimately an illusion. An Infinite Being, by definition, can’t even change, much less hide. What can change however is His creation’s ability to perceive His presence, regardless of the fact that He fills the universe.
When it comes to perceiving the infinite source of reality, our tradition teaches us that not all creatures are equal. Spiritual beings such as angels are by their very nature highly conscious of this presence. But for human beings in this physical and illusory world, high levels of consciousness are anything but intrinsic. In fact, although we may not always realize it, our perception of God is damaged whenever an act of evil is committed, in as much as it appears to contradict the very notion of His benevolent, omniscient and omnipotent existence. The deeper truth of course, is that evil is only “tolerated” so that man can have free will. Nevertheless, a world where evil is allowed to flourish can easily appear to be a world where God doesn’t exist at all.
As long as Pharaoh was allowed to get away with his plan, the Jews’ perception of God’s reality was diminished. But the miraculous destruction of Pharaoh’s army at the sea constituted a dramatic and powerful revelation of His presence. In fact, it was so powerful that even the lowliest maidservant was literally able to point her finger and say: “this is my God, and I will extol Him.” (Shemot 15:2) This revelation, and not Egypt’s destruction, was the subject of the Jewish people’s joy and celebration. The ministering angels, however, were incapable of experiencing revelation, since their awareness of God could never be diminished in the first place. Which means the only thing they could celebrate was Egypt’s downfall – and this we are told unequivocally, was completely unacceptable.
Based upon this understanding, it would be inappropriate for us to gloat over the death of Osama Bin Laden. The openly miraculous and complete redemption of the Jews at the sea constituted a clear and dramatic revelation of God’s presence. But the death of Osama at the hands of US Navy Seals, as part of an ongoing and far-from-finished “war against terror” does not. This of course, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be glad that he’s dead. Nor should we conclude that killing him was wrong. Quite the opposite, we are morally obligated to do everything in our power to fight evil and protect innocent lives. It’s just that we should never lose sight of the fact that taking a life in order to save lives, while proper and justified, is still when all is said and done, a tremendous tragedy.
Evil doesn’t just threaten our lives and our well-being. It threatens us spiritually, whenever it causes us to lose sight of the deeper good that underlies all of existence. This, I believe, is the real lesson of both the song at the sea, and God’s rebuke of the ministering angels. We must never allow evil to keep us from perceiving the good that pervades all of reality. Nor should we lose sight of the innate potential for goodness and meaning that is embedded within every human being, no matter how bad they have become. But most of all, we should always seek out, and never take for granted, any opportunity that we get to appreciate and celebrate the revelation of that good, wherever and whenever we are fortunate enough to experience it.