It certainly felt like I was living in a fairy tale when I heard that Rush Limbaugh even uttered the phrase, “God bless President Obama.” Of course, it turns out that he was being sarcastic, criticizing the president for taking too much credit for the raid he directed. But at least partisan pot-shots bring us back to reality. The reality is that on Sunday evening in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a team of Navy Seals found Osama Bin Laden. After being dropped by helicopter into his compound and enduring a 40-minute fire fight, Bin Laden was identified, shot, and killed.
For some of us it feels like the dragon that has been terrorizing our village for the past decade will never again harm us. For others it opens a dialogue of doubt and mistrust. For others it is an opportunity to forward internet memes.
I was in Israel 10 years ago on September 11, and I vividly remember watching the television for three days straight as we wondered what was going to happen to us as Americans in the Middle East. I remember the moment in time when many of us thought that retaliation was the only possible solution. I remember watching news clip after news clip of Al-Qaida supporters dancing in the streets and celebrating at our loss. It made us angry. So angry their leaders told them to stop for fear of what Americans might do.
When I first learned that Bin Laden had been killed, my initial reaction was relief—even joy. I was glad he was gone, and relieved that the head of the beast had been cut off. Then the tweets and texts started pouring in. People were rejoicing in a way that reminded me of those clips 10 years ago.
Looking at our sacred texts, however, teaches us a different message. The book of Proverbs says, “When your enemy falls do not celebrate, and when he stumbles do not rejoice” (24:17). This line comes right after the Proverb tells us that those who do not follow God’s ways are guaranteed to fall. Yet we are not supposed to rejoice when they do. When they die, all opportunity is lost. What miniscule chance there may have been for them to repent is gone. As the book of Ezekiel teaches us, God does not desire the death of the wicked, but that they turn from their ways and live (18:23).
A 13th century collection of Midrash called Yalkut Shimoni comments on the song at the sea, the poem the Israelites sing after they are saved from the Egyptian Army. God makes the Red Sea part for the Israelites, and they cross on dry land. The Egyptians follow close behind, but as soon as the Israelites are safely across, the sea closes and the Egyptians drown. Moses and Miriam lead the Israelites in song praising God, and up above the angels are watching. When the angels begin to sing, God scolds them, “You want to sing while my children are drowning?” We are reminded that all human beings are created in the image of God. Not all the good ones or all with exception. Every human being is in the image of God. Even those who might do us harm.
There are teachings in our tradition that seem to contradict this notion. The Parashah we read this week gives us a review of the law of retaliation. Near the end of Parashat Emor, we read:
If a man maims another, as he has done so shall it be done to him: break for break, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him. One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it; but one who kills a human being shall be put to death. You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I Adonai am your God.The rabbis jump all over this verse. 11th century French commentator Rashi says that it should not be translated as inflicted, but as rendered, which implies commerce. Therefore, the comparison is not a physical one but a financial one. A man who loses an eye must be paid restitution for that eye, for example. In the early 12th century, Spanish Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra points out that there is no way to possible exact such a punishment physically. In the case of a break for a break, how could the break be made in exactly the same location? Even more so for an eye. Say a one-eyed man causes another man’s eye to be lost. Is it fair, ibn Ezra asks, to make one man go blind in exchange for taking half of the vision of another? So even in the case of lex talionis, we are not commanded to literally injure someone who injures us or even murder a murderer. Instead we are to seek justice. Punish them, but do not allow violence to beget violence.
Simply striking back when our enemies strike us would be giving in to our animal instincts. When the Israelites are saved at the Red Sea at the expense of the Egyptians, God lets them sing. They have just been freed from Egypt. They are confused, tired, and scared. They know they are no longer slaves to Egyptian rule, but they do not know what lies ahead of them. They are in limbo, in between freedom and redemption. When they leave Egypt their bodies are saved, but when they receive Torah they have the ability to free their minds.
The same is true for America. For the past decade we have focused on a scary monster dubbed “Terror.” We have been afraid for ten years to travel; we have allowed prejudice and bigotry to take over our political discourse; we have looked into the eyes of God’s creations and seen only that which is, “other.” Last weekend our Navy Seals took down a symbol of that monster’s power. Our struggle is not over. We will have more monsters to fight, more dragons to slay. We are free but not yet redeemed. We still have to free our minds. As a nation we must come to the realization that we must treat all human beings—even those who would do us harm—as they are: created in the image of God. Then we will be working toward the day when God will be one and God’s name will be one.