News of Arafat’s death a few weeks ago was met with…confusion. No one shed any tears, but people were unsure as to whether Jews ever celebrate the death of anyone.
People quickly pointed out the drops of wine we spill at the Seder, remembering the Egyptians who died. They mentioned the midrash that the angels who wanted to sing Shirah after the drowning of the Egyptians in the Sea were prevented because song was incompatible with the death of human beings.
Others responded that while the angels were blocked, the Jews who had actually suffered at the hands of the Egyptians did sing Shirah.
Some pointed to the verse (Mishlei 24:17) prohibiting rejoicing at the downfall of an enemy. Others countered that this only applied to personal foes, but not to enemies of our entire people.
Indeed, a group of rabbis in Israel issued a statement calling for celebration. Their statement included some well-known names.
Over Shabbos, I stumbled upon the diametrically opposed view, authored by one of the most important names in Torah thought in the last hundred years. Rav Meir Simchah (Meshech Chochmah, Parshas Bo, 12:16 s.v. hinei b’Pesach) cites the verse in Mishlei to explain why Chazal did not turn Chanuka into a celebration of our military victory, but only the miracle of the oil. Only non-Jews, he says, declare days of celebration marking their triumph over their enemies. We do not. We didn’t in regard to the Exodus, which is why the Torah keeps referring to Pesach as a holiday of matzos, not a commemoration of our defeat of the Egyptians. We didn’t in regard to Purim either, which is why Purim does not fall on the day we won our battle Haman’s followers, but on the day we rested after the conclusion of the battle.
The very fact that the media were so eager to learn whether Jews would celebrate or not says something about the expectations others have of us.