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Torah Attitude: Parashas Beshalach: My enemy's pain is not my gain
As the Egyptians drown, the angels are reprimanded for singing. All humans are created in the image of G'd. Abraham was the great lover of all people. The Jewish soldier kills if necessary but is distressed by killing. Jews do not rejoice when their enemy falls.
This week's Torah attitude is that since all humans are created in the image of G'd, we do not take pleasure when others fall, even if they are enemies who tried to kill us.
Pillar of cloud
In this week's Torah portion, we read how the Egyptian chariots chase after the Jewish people. An angel, in the form of the pillar of cloud, blocks the Egyptians from advancing. As Moses stretches out his hand over the sea, the waters part, and the Jewish people escape on the dry sea bed. The Torah describes the pillar of cloud as, "[The angel of G'd] came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel and there were cloud and darkness – while it illuminated the night – and one did not draw near the other all the night" (Shemos 14:20).
Angels stop singing
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 39b) teaches that "one did not draw near the other all the night" also refers to the angels who wished to sing praises to G'd when the Egyptians were about to be destroyed by the sea walls collapsing back on them. G'd rebuked the angels saying, "My handiwork [the Egyptians] is drowning in the sea, and you would utter song before Me?!" On hearing this rebuke, the angels stopped singing and did not "draw near" each other.
Every Festival, the Jewish people sing the praises of Hallel. However, on the last six days of Pesach, two paragraphs are omitted. This is due to the fact that the Egyptians drowned at the sea on the seventh day of Pesach. (This is why we read the Torah portion about the drowning on that day.) On the seventh and eighth days of Pesach, we omit part of the Hallel to commemorate that G'd was saddened by the death of the Egyptians. (And because the seventh and eighth days are more holy than the intermediate days, we also omit that part of the Hallel on those days).
The Egyptians were chasing after the Jewish people like wild animals. They had mercilessly drowned baby boys in the Nile River. They had used the bodies of Jewish children to fill the spaces in the walls of their pyramids. There were no atrocities that the Egyptians were not willing to inflict on the Jewish people. So why was G'd saddened when the Egyptians drowned in the sea?
Image of G'd
We may find the answer to G'd's sadness in what Rabbi Akiva said, (Perkei Avos 3:14) "Precious is the human being, who was created in the image [of G'd], as it is said, for in the image of G'd He made man (Bereishis 9:6)". Not only the Jewish people were created in the image of G'd, but all humans. From this we understand that G'd feels for all of His creation, Jewish or not. The sages also teach us "Greet everybody first" (Perkei Avos 4:15). Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai would be the first to greet even a gentile in the marketplace. If we view every person we meet as someone who was created in the image of G'd, Jew and gentile alike, then we must treat them with the proper respect.
Abraham, the great lover of people
We learn from our great ancestor Abraham to what extent we can strive to treat others with a positive attitude. The people of Sodom and Gomorrah represented some of the worst excesses of human selfishness. It was a crime in Sodom and Gomorrah to give charity. G'd was so outraged by the wickedness of these people that He destroyed them with a shower of fire and brimstone. On the other hand, our Patriarch Abraham was the epitome of lovingkindness. While suffering from excruciating pain, he interrupted his conversation with G'd to run out into the middle of the scorching desert to greet three strangers and attend to their needs. However, when G'd told him that He was about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham pleaded with G'd to find a way to prevent this destruction. Abraham's prayer for his enemies was a pure act of lovingkindness: caring for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah with no expectation of receiving anything from them in return. No matter that Sodom and Gomorrah sought to destroy everything that Abraham believed in. The greatness of Abraham was that he was able to look past the exterior of his enemies to see the image of G'd in everyone. We, as Jews, carry Abraham's greatness in our genes. We have within us the potential to emulate his lovingkindness.
Jacob, the ideal Jewish soldier
Our sages teach us that if someone comes to kill you, you must kill him first (Sanhedrin 72a). If the choice is kill or be killed, there is no choice. However, a soldier has a choice of the attitude or feeling he should maintain at the time that he takes the life of his enemy. The proper Jewish attitude or feeling in this situation we learn from our Patriarch, Jacob. Esau was furious with his brother Jacob and sought to kill him. The Torah tells us that when Esau was heading with four hundred men toward Jacob and his family, "Jacob became very frightened, and it distressed him" (Bereishis 32:8). Rashi quotes the Midrash and teaches us that Jacob was afraid that Esau was going to kill him and his family. At that same time, Jacob was distressed that he might have to kill Esau or some of his men in order to defend himself. Our Patriarch Jacob taught us that the Jewish warrior is distressed by the necessity of killing his enemy. We, as Jews, also carry the potential of Jacob's greatness in our genes. We have the capacity to follow in his footsteps with the high esteem for every human life.
The fallen enemy
King Solomon summarized the proper Jewish attitude towards our enemies: "Don't rejoice when your enemy falls. Don't let your heart be glad when he is overthrown" (Mishleh 24:17). Does this mean that we, as Jews, should be kind to our enemies when they plan to kill us? Of course not! The Torah instructs us to defend ourselves through whatever actions may be necessary. In the case of our enemy Amalek, we have even been commanded by G'd to annihilate any physical presence of this enemy and to erase any memory of him from the face of the earth (Devarim 25:19). But the Jewish soldier does not rejoice when his enemy falls. Rather, the Jewish soldier feels the pain when it is necessary to destroy part of G'd's creation. When the Jewish soldier kills his enemy, he remembers that even his enemy was created in the image of G'd.
Abraham pleaded with G'd not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, even though they sought to destroy everything that Abraham lived for. Jacob was distressed at the thought of killing his brother and his men, even though they sought to kill him. To this day, we do not sing parts of the Hallel on Pesach because, even though the Egyptians sought to annihilate us, we do not rejoice when the Egyptians fell at the sea. When we join G'd in His pain upon the destruction of one of His creations, we move closer to G'd. And in this way we, the Jewish people, move closer to our purpose in life to be a light unto the nations of the world.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network