Rejoicing at the Fall of Our Enemies
Rabbi Melanie Aron
April 5, 2003
I promised the Tuesday class a story instead of a sermon- but the story needs a little introduction.
Last Friday in my exercise class nearly imploded. A woman said something critical of the war and a man accused her of disloyalty to our troops who are risking their lives for us. Then someone said something about President Bush and it became a free for all. It reminded me a little of seders during my childhood.
When I was in fifth and sixth grade, we had Seders at my grandparents' house in New York. It was during the Vietnam War and there was a lot of arguing. My uncle, my mother's brother, was in the United States army. He graduated from the Virginia Military Institute, then was a paratrooper and served during the Cold War in Europe. Finally he became a physician in the army and served in MASH hospitals in Vietnam. My mother, by contrast, belonged to a group called "another mother for peace" and wore a pendant: "war is not healthy for children or other living things." You can just imagine what would happen when we all sat down together.
I was thinking about that this spring as Passover approaches. My guess is my family will be equally divided this year in their opinions about the war in Iraq, should we have gotten involved in the first place, and now that we are at war, what is the correct course to take.
At our Los Gatos clergy meeting this past Monday, a discussion of upcoming interfaith service brought out a lot of different opinions about what's going on right now. Even something seemingly as straightforward as the memorial prayer brought up a lot of conflicts. Do we mourn just American losses or also Iraqi deaths? Civilians, or soldiers too? What about the deaths of those who truly have been the enemy?
It's this discussion that reminded me of the story I wanted to tell. It's found in the midrash and sometimes is printed in Haggadahs around the reading of the ten plagues.
Imagine the angels watching anxiously as the Israelites leave Egypt and begin their march towards the desert. The rabbis describe the angels sort of like fans at a ball game, sitting up in the bleachers, watching what's going on, and cheering on their favorites.
Hurry up, the angels urge the Israelites, who are only slowly leaving Egypt. It's taken some time to get the Israelites moving. Packing up their belongings is a job after all they've been in Egypt for 400 years. There are children to prepare for the trip and old people. The Israelites are unaware of any danger, but the angels can see everything at once, notice Pharaoh regretting his decision to free the people, and calling up his horsemen and chariots to chase after them and recapture them. Oh no, the angels cry, when they see the Israelites heading off in the direction of the Sea of Reeds, the Pharaoh's chariots will catch up to them from behind. They'll be trapped, the angels moan, they can't move forward into the sea, and behind them is all the might of Egypt. Its hopeless, they exclaim, there is no way out. The angels join in the cries of the Israelites, who by now have turned around and realize the desperateness of their situation.
Of course you know what happens next. In ancient times, since they didn't have night vision goggles, armies hunkered down in the dark and didn't attack. All night the two groups remain still, the Israelites at the shore of the sea, and the Egyptian army just behind them. Then a Ruach Kaddim, a wind from the east, creates a path through the sea. Following Nachshon ben Aminadab, the first Israelite courageous enough to step into the sea, the Israelites are able to cross safely, but when the Egyptians follow with their soldiers and heavy chariots, they become stuck in the mud and as the waters come rolling back over them, they drown in the sea.
At that point the angels break out into song, they are so happy, so relieved that the Israelites are finally safe. All that God had done for the Israelites has finally paid off, the Israelites are free at last.
God sees the angel's rejoicing, but God isn't pleased. "My creatures are drowning in the sea", God says, "and you sing songs".
The Midrash tells us that God was not angry with the Israelites for singing and rejoicing at the shores of the sea. The people had just escaped great danger. It was only human that they express their relief and their joy. But the angels were supposed to have a somewhat broader perspective. They should have kept their awareness of the spark of God that is in every person, even the Pharaoh himself. They should have remembered God's teaching, "it is not the death of the wicked that I seek, but only that he should turn from his evil ways and live."
That story from the ancient Midrash is preserved in our Passover seder rituals even to this day. When we come to the retelling of the ten plagues, we pour some wine out of our cup, or some families take a little bit of wine with their finger at this point. We show God that we understand that our cup of joy cannot be filled to the brim, as long as others, even if they were our enemies, have lost their lives.
So where does that leave us today? From all our various vantage points, we join to pray that the war will end soon. We ask for God's guidance too in the postwar period, understanding the rejoicing of Kurds, Shiites, and others at the fall of their enemies, we pray to find the wisdom to turn enemies into friends, and establish the foundation for a more lasting peace.