Sunday, May 15, 2011

How to celebrate Osama's death

When Americans took to the streets to celebrate Osama bin Laden's death, something didn't quite sit right with me. Initially, I put it down to two issues that didn't add up. One was the undeniable similarity between their behaviour and Arab jubilation when the Twin Towers came down on 9/11. The other was the patently illogical joy at a "safer world", when the threat of terrorism remains palpable even after Osama. Besides, since when do Jews celebrate our enemies' downfalls?

Earlier this week, the "was it right to celebrate" conversation came up again. As we debated the merits or otherwise of America's joyous outpouring, a fresh perspective emerged.

Pesach recalls how Pharaoh tried to annihilate us, and failed. Purim commemorates Haman's unsuccessful attempt at Jewish genocide. During these and other similar holidays, we don't thank G-d for killing our adversaries, but for saving us.

In fact, after G-d drowned the Egyptians in the sea, we sang a song of praise to thank Him for rescuing us. The angels wanted to sing a song of praise at that time too, but G-d stopped them. We had reason to sing, because we had just been saved and needed to thank G-d. The angels had never been in danger, so G-d refused to allow them to sing at a time when so many people- evil as they were- died.

When the Jews sang to G-d at the sea, it was not a flippant, break-out-the-bubbly-in-the- street affair. If you acknowledge that G-d has made a miracle for you, you acknowledge that you owe Him something in return. After all, if He has kept you alive, He clearly expects you to achieve something.

After being held up in my home at gunpoint a week before Rosh Hashanah (and a few days before 9/11), I remember thinking that G-d clearly wanted to send me a message. My assailant could have pulled the trigger at any moment (Johannesburg has more daily murders than you care to imagine), so what stopped him? My conclusion: G-d didn't allow him to. Standing in Shul on that Rosh Hashanah, reflecting on the past and planning for the future, I felt that if He had kept me alive I had better ensure my life would be meaningful.

When a person survives a life-threatening experience (crime, accident or illness), Jewish law mandates that they say a thanksgiving blessing. That blessing reads: "Blessed are you G-d... who kindly does good for those who do not deserve it." G-d does miracles because He cares about us, not because we have earned them. He destroys our enemies because He loves us, not because we deserve His protection.

You want to celebrate because one terrifying villain is no longer? Fine. But, don't rush out into the streets, yelling and toasting his death. A Jew should respond with a show of dedication to G-d; a meaningful statement of "thank you for what you have done for us, now we owe you."

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