Shiur #10: When the Wicked Perish

  • Rav Moshe Taragin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Pirkei Avot - The Wisdom of the Fathers


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This shiur is in honor of the birth of our bechor. May he be zoche l'Torah, l'chupa ul'maasim tovim. Aaron and Malka Simkovich.

Mazal tov to his grandparents, Moshe and Laurie Simkovich and Allen and Naomi Zeiger, and great-grandparents, Beatrice Simkovich, Dan and Joan Kunitz, Ann Zeiger and Aaron and Ferol Sabghir.

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Shiur #10: When the Wicked Perish

By Rav Moshe Taragin

I. Who was Shemuel Ha-katan?

The nineteenth mishna of the fourth perek cites a somewhat unusual comment by a person named Shemuel Ha-katan ("the little Shemuel"). This 'diminutive' title was actually applied in tribute to Shemuel (as Rashi comments in his explanation to the mishna). Comparable in many ways to Shemuel Ha-navi, he was given this title in deference to Shemuel Ha-navi's superior status. But his very resemblance to the prophet, illustrated by the name, displayed Shemuel Ha-katan's advanced stature. The gemara in Sota (48b) describes a convention of several Tanaim, including Shemuel Ha-katan, in the city of Yavneh. A heavenly voice announced that one of the convening members deserved the "dwelling of the Shekhina," but was obstructed by his generation (which was still not deemed worthy). Instinctively, the assembled scholars looked at Shemuel Ha-katan, assuming that it was he of whom the bat kol (heavenly voice) spoke. This episode further reinforces his advanced standing - especially in the eyes of his contemporaries.

An interesting passage in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Sota 9:13) presents yet a different basis for the appellation of 'katan.' Self-effacing and humble, Shemuel was awarded this title as a sign of his unique meekness. In fact, the gemara cites an episode in which Rabban Gamliel the elder invited seven sages to convene for the purpose of inaugurating a leap year. Discovering eight attendees, he questioned who had arrived without authorization. Shemuel Ha-katan came forth and confessed that though he wasn't invited, he nevertheless attended to witness the process of installing a leap year and thereby study the discipline. A different account suggests that Shemuel Ha-katan WAS indeed one of the authorized scholars, but, by coming forward, he 'took the rap' for a different scholar, whom he wished to save from embarrassment. This self-sacrifice demonstrates his humility – a trait which may also account for his atypical name.

II. What Does Shemuel Add?

Shemuel's statement is unique among all the other mishnayot in Pirkei Avot in that he merely cites a pasuk from Mishlei, without adding any explanation or commentary. Evidently, he felt that the theme contained in the pasuk was so crucial that it bore constant reiteration, and he would therefore cite this proverb often. The pasuk in Mishlei (24:17-18) reads: "When your enemy falters do not rejoice (bi-nfol oivekha al tismach), and when he stumbles do not feel glee (u-ve-koshlo al yagel libekha), lest Hashem notice and disapprove (pen yireh Hashem ve-ra be-einav), and avert His anger from him (ve-heishiv mei-alav apo)." This pasuk, which warns against triumphant celebration at our enemies' demise, raises numerous moral and theological questions. Perhaps the most famous application of this theme occurs on Pesach, when we refrain from reciting full hallel on the seventh day (and, by extension, during Chol Ha-mo'ed) since the Egyptians drowned on that day. As the gemara in Sanhedrin (39b) narrates, Hashem told the angels who wished to recite hallel at the time of keri'at Yam Suf, "My creatures are drowning at sea, and you will recite hallel to me?" Based on this gemara, the Shulchan Arukh (O.C. 490) rules that only half-hallel is recited after the first day of Pesach. (Recently, with the welcome death of Yasser Arafat - a murderer responsible for the brutal death of thousands of innocent Jews - this question resurfaced.)

It should be noted that although this is the prevalent explanation for the half-hallel recitation on Pesach, a dissenting opinion applies an alternate reason. The gemara in Arakhin (10a) claims that the last six days of Pesach warrant only half-hallel because they all feature the same musaf offering. Unlike Sukkot, during which the korbanot differ from day to day, Pesach requires the exact same protocol each and every day. This uniformity of korbanot reflects a homogeny which renders these days unworthy of complete hallel. By taking this approach, we may 'ignore' the rationale presented in Sanhedrin, and perhaps, theoretically, warrant hallel recitation when the evil perish. Indeed, the Shulchan Arukh cites Sanhedrin's basis, but many poskim cite the dissenting logic of the gemara in Arakhin.

III. Three Qualifications

The verse in Mishlei notwithstanding, several other sources do, in fact, call for rejoicing at the death of enemies, suggesting that the admonition against rejoicing at an enemy's downfall might not apply universally.

Firstly, the gemara in Masekhet Megilla (16a) recounts a discussion between Mordekhai and Haman as the latter was bending to hoist the former onto the horse to begin the parade through the streets of Shushan. As Mordekhai ascended onto Haman's back, he kicked him, to which Haman responded, "Doesn't your Torah prohibit such triumphantism,?" and cited the pasuk in Mishlei as proof. Mordekhai replied that although joy is forbidden at the ruin of JEWISH foes, great elation may be sensed (and expressed) at the failure of non-Jewish enemies. Of course, Mordekhai's response calls into question the discussion of the gemara in Sanhedrin. Since the Egyptians were not Jewish, their downfall should have invited unmitigated celebration in the same manner that Haman's did. Why, then, do we refrain from a complete hallel recitation on Pesach?

This question may be resolved in light of the continuation of that very same gemara in Sanhedrin, where the gemara cites a different pasuk from Mishlei (11:10): "when evildoers are destroyed, there is joy" ("ba-avod resha'im rina"). After noting the seeming contradiction between the two pesukim, the gemara ultimately explains that Hashem Himself is not joyful (and hallel is therefore not recited), but others (the righteous) may indeed rejoice. A second criterion thus emerges that even pertaining to non-Jewish criminals, Hashem does not exult, but the 'victims' of the particular evil may rejoice, though without reciting hallel to Hashem. Hence, Mordekhai was justified in punting Haman, but would not be authorized to recite hallel.

Rabbenu Yona, in his commentary to Avot, raises yet a third factor. Triumphing at others' sorrow – expressing any form of joy over the fall of a Jewish enemy, or reciting hallel at the decline of a gentile enemy – is morally odious and halkhically forbidden. However, celebrating Hashem's victory (the death of evil, the cessation of chillul Hashem) is not only permissible, but also expected. After all – as the gemara asserts in Megilla (14a) – reading the Megilla is actually a form of hallel (which is one reason why actual hallel is not recited on Purim). The angels were not permitted to recite hallel because THEIR joy seemed to be indulging in the suffering of the Egyptians. Invulnerable to their persecution, and inactive in the historical process, they could not sense the desecration of Hashem's Name which this miracle relieved. By contrast, human beings sense Hashem's glorification when history is altered and the wicked are destroyed, and are therefore permitted to recite hallel.

Evidence to Rabbenu Yona's theory may be drawn from the gemara in Bava Batra, which lists the seventh of Kislev as one of 'national holidays' recorded in Megillat Ta'anit (a list of minor festivals established to commemorate certain momentous events). This was the day on which King Herod, a violent enemy of the Sages, passed away, an event worthy of commemoration through a national holiday. This holiday witnessed the sensation and national expression of joy at the death of a Jewish criminal. Evidently, it is Rabbenu Yona's exemption – allowing the celebration of kiddush Hashem – that accounts for this allowance.

Of course, Rabbenu Yona's distinction begs the question of why we do not recite full hallel on the seventh day of Pesach to celebrate Hashem's magnificence. Perhaps Chazal feared that we would indulge too deeply in the cataclysmic suffering of the Egyptians, and not sufficiently celebrate Hashem's glory.

IV. Is Mishlei Prohibiting or Advising?

A gemara in Nedarim (40a) might lead us to construct an entirely different approach to the pasuk in Mishlei. Rava, who had fallen ill, requested that his illness be publicized, anticipating that his friends would pray for his recovery while his enemies would rejoice at the news of his infirmity. In response to their joy, Rava presumed, Hashem would relieve his suffering, in accordance with the warning in this pasuk in Mishlei, 'lest Hashem notice and disapprove, and avert His anger from him.' Rava's invocation of this verse suggests that the pasuk speaks of metaphysical realities, rather than halakhic or moral ones. Excess joy at another's misfortune is not just insensitive; it may prompt Hashem to reassess the fate of the sufferer. Counting on this dynamic, Rava coveted the elation of his enemies.

Would this dictum apply to enemies who have already perished? Perhaps once history has been cemented (after keri'at Yam Suf, for example) joy may be felt and expressed. Mishlei is not forbidding such conduct as much as it is warning against "counting our chickens before they hatch." In a similar vein, Haman may have been warning Mordekhai not to declare premature victory, as their respective fortunes could still reverse. Interestingly, the gemara in Sanhedrin (39b), which recounts the heavenly debate about reciting hallel, does not cite the pasuk in Mishlei. Though the angles were constrained from reciting hallel, and the Shulchan Arukh extends this conduct to our celebration of Pesach, neither actually cites the verse admonishing against celebrating an enemy's downfall. Quite possibly, then, joy at the death of evildoers is morally legitimate, but often strategically unwise. Therefore, retrospectively, after events have been finalized, the constraints might disappear.

Such an approach, of course, demands an explanation as to why a full hallel recitation is inappropriate on Pesach. Why must we restrict our celebration of keri'at Yam Suf, if that historical chapter was closed centuries ago? One answer, perhaps, is that however legitimate unmitigated celebration might be, it cannot be formalized by way of the recitation of hallel to Hashem. Alternatively, we might claim that in principle hallel may be recited in its entirety, and our practice is based only partially on this theme of 'triumph moderation.' It is the combination of this factor and the consideration mentioned by the gemara in Arakhin, regarding the uniformity of the musaf offerings on Pesach, that precludes a full hallel recitation. In the absence of this second factor, a full hallel might, indeed, have been appropriate.

V. Defeating and Rejoicing

An intriguing gemara in Berakhot (28b) may provide a final component to our attitude toward the suffering of evildoers. The gemara in Berakhot identifies Shimon Ha-pekuli as the author of shemoneh esrei. Having presided over the codification of these eighteen berakhot, Rabban Gamliel requisitioned someone to draft an additional blessing praying for the failure of enemies and the humbling of the wicked. Of all people, it was Shemuel Ha-katan who stepped forward to take on this task!!! How ironic it is that the very same Shemuel Ha-katan, who warned against indulgent joy at the suffering of enemies, rises to the occasion to formulate a prayer for the downfall of the wicked!!!

Presumably, Shemuel – at a personal level - drew two distinctions:

1) Firstly, evil must be met with unqualified force and resistance, and his berakha, requesting Hashem's assistance, was one step toward defeating evil. Though the defeat of evil must not be excessively rejoiced, evil must, indeed, be defeated. The berakha petitions Hashem for assistance without celebrating an individual's collapse. Note that no mention of the demise of the wicked appears in the shemoneh esrei's introductory section of praise, or in its concluding section of gratitude. Shemuel merely added a REQUEST for Heavenly aid in defeating our enemies.

2) I think there is additional factor at play in Shemuel's willingness to craft a blessing for the ruin of resha'im, a factor which – at a practical level – seems pivotal. The gemara in Berakhot (10a) lauds David Ha-melekh for praising Hashem at every stage of his life and in every personal context. He praised Hashem when he was conceived, when he was born, when he began to nurse, and so on. One stage specified by the gemara is the point when David witnessed the downfall of the wicked, as indicated by a verse in Tehilim (104:35): "Sins will cease from the earth, and the wicked will be no more; bless Hashem, my soul…" Interestingly, the gemara raises no objection to this prayer, and does not challenge David from the pasuk in Mishlei. I believe the difference is obvious. David did not respond with extraordinary or unique praise at the demise of the evil. Instead, he viewed it as part of an overarching religious experience which at ALL TIMES demands equivalent praise. The event of salvation warrants praise to the same degree as the wonder of birth. This conduct is appropriate and is reflected in Shemuel's introduction of a berakha about the downfall of the wicked into an "elaborately structured" liturgy covering the entire range of human experience.

Mishlei's moral or halakhic interjection pertains to someone who is capable of praising Hashem when the evil fail, but incapable of sensing that gratitude or expressing that joy when natural, "enemy-less" dilemmas are resolved. This attitude reflects a 'humanization" of human experience, rather than a "Divinization" of our condition. If the Ribono shel Olam truly administers our condition, the presence or absence of actual enemies is irrelevant. At a psychological and empirical level, it is easier to sense joy when a villain declines. However, expressing joy at an enemy's downfall which is DISPROPORTIONATE to our celebration at other moments of success may be troubling at more than a moral level. Theologically, it may communicate an over-obsession with the human 'players' who are nothing more than pawns in Hashem's system. When those pawns are vanquished, we should indeed celebrate, but only with the recognition that the true drama is being directed in Heaven. It is therefore inappropriate to celebrate such events with greater intensity than one rejoices over God's many other acts of kindness and salvation.