By Shlomo Riskin ~
“On the fifteenth day of this month there shall be the festival of matzot for the Lord; for seven days shall you eat matzot.” (Leviticus 23: 7,8)
Over the last few weeks, Israel has been through its cycle of commemorative days, taking us through the roller-coaster of emotions as we mourn the victims of the Holocaust and those who died in Israel’s wars as well as celebrating the establishment of the State of Israel. Throughout this period, we have also been thinking about the latest threats of genocide against the Jewish people and at the commemorative ceremonies, our Prime Minister spoke passionately about the Iranian threat. With the possibility of some sort of attack on Iran in everyone’s minds, our question is how should we relate to those who wish to destroy the Jewish people?
As I visited educational institutions teaching about the significance of Yom Hashoah, I couldn’t help but feel a certain satisfaction and even joy despite the deep dark clouds from Auschwitz and Treblinka.
I kept hearing in my own mind the verse, “In the destruction of the wicked there is exultation” (Proverbs 11: 10). Is revenge a legitimate Jewish emotion, especially in light of the prohibition against nekama- vengeance (Leviticus 19:18)?
Our portion of Emor lists the festivals. Unlike the festival of Sukkot wherein Hallel (Psalms of Praise) is recited every day, on Passover only “half Hallel” is recited during the last six days out of respect for the Egyptians who died during the Exodus. In fact, our rabbinic sages teach us that when the Egyptians were being drowned in the Reed Sea, the Almighty stopped the angels from singing praises. “The work of My hands is drowning in the sea, and you are singing songs of praise?!” And did we not learn in the name of Shmuel HaKatan, “You shall not rejoice at the fall of your enemies”?
When the Nazis marched into the small Polish town of Boyan, they took out the three Jewish leaders – the rebbe, the dayan (Judge) and the parnas – and forced them to dig their own graves. Before being shot, the rebbe asked to recite a very short prayer: “Blessed art Thou Lord our God king of the Universe who has not created me a gentile.” The Nazi murderers burst “out laughing. “Foolish Jewish pig!” they screamed. “Do you not realize that if only you were a gentile, you could continue to live?” The rebbe looked directly into the eyes of his evil executioner: “When the world is divided between those who murder innocent people and innocent people who are being murdered, I would rather be among the murdered than the murdering! Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”
It is our good fortune that today we have a third option. We now have the possibility of defending ourselves against those who wish to destroy innocent lives. I gave a talk 33 years ago to a group of nine-year-olds in Kibbutz Ein Tzurim. It was on Tisha B’Av and I was trying to explain to them the horrors of the Holocaust. As I described a kinderaction when hundreds of children were rounded up for Auschwitz, one young boy raised his hand: “But rabbi, where was Tzahal, the Israeli Army?” I kissed him on the forehead, joyous in the knowledge that a new generation was growing up without any knowledge of life before the Israel Defense Forces.
One cannot love good without despising evil; those who are silent in the face of evil are ultimately collaborators with the evil that is being perpetrated. It is to this end, that we are commanded to “destroy the “evil within our midst” and to “blot out the memory of Amalek.” It is fascinating that the verse does not command us to blot out Amalek but rather the memory of Amalek. The best way to do this would be to convert Amalek – at least to acceptance of the Seven Noahide Laws of Morality. The Talmud (B.T. Sanhedrin 99) suggests that Timna, the mistress of Elifaz, son of Esau, wished to convert to Judaism, but was rejected by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Disappointed, she went to live with Elifaz, and the child they bore together was Amalek. (Genesis 36: 12) The Talmudic lesson derived from this is that she should have been accepted. There is even a Talmudic tradition that the descendants of Amalek taught Torah in B’nei Brak!
If conversion is impossible, then evil must be destroyed. And one has a right to rejoice when evil individuals ready to act against innocent people are prevented from doing so. Remember that God chides the angels for singing songs of praise at the Reed Sea – the angels, who could not have been harmed by the Egyptians, but not the Israelites. As we all know, they did sing at the Reed Sea.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.