On Human Dignity
World War Two was the bloodiest war in the history of civilization, with some fifty million fatalities. When the Allies finally emerged triumphant, Winston Churchill ended his final speech with five words: “Advance Britain, long live freedom”. There was no mockery of the vanquished in his discourse, let alone rejoicing, at the human and economic price of defeat for the belligerent parties. Churchill’s approach, in this regard, finds its genesis and origin in a celebrated rabbinic midrash pertaining to Passover. And here’s how:
In Jewish Liturgy (prayer), we recite a selection of psalms on special occasions, such as Rosh Chodesh and certain festivals. This special selection of psalms is known as “Hallel”. However, on Passover we only recite the entirety of the Hallel text during the first two days of the holiday, but for the remaining six days of Passover (outside Israel), we only recite “half a hallel”, an abridged version of these psalms. This is different than what we do during some of the other holidays, such as Sukkot and Shavuot for example, during which we recite the entire Hallel service during each and every day of the holiday.
The reason we don’t recite the entire Hallel each day of Passover is that according to the midrash, when the Red Sea was split and Pharaoh’s chariots were drowning in the Sea of Reeds, the angels started rejoicing and singing in the celestial realms.
According to the midrash, The Almighty was dismayed by this celebratory display of joy, and reproached the angels by exclaiming: “My creations (i.e. the Egyptians) are drowning in the sea, and you guys are reciting poetry and singing?!”
This is a stunning midrash, because it is the genesis of universal empathy. It pioneers a sense of basic respect for human life under the most challenging of circumstances, when we are fighting for our very existence against the enemies of civilized humanity and freedom.
We find an echo of this Jewish insistence on not rejoicing at the loss of life, even when it comes to our sworn enemies, in the following teaching in the Mishnah: ”When your enemy falls, do not rejoice”.
As Jews, and as civilized people who yearn for freedom, we are willing to fight and sacrifice in order to maintain the precious gift of liberty. But we see bloodshed as a necessary evil, and not as a reason for joy and celebration.
Unlike some of our enemies, we do not distribute candies in the streets or shoot in the air in joy at the news of some deaths in our enemies’ civilian population for example. Respect for the sanctity of life, any human life, is fundamental to our spiritual and moral sensibilities and ethos. We certainly do celebrate our freedom and our triumphs, but we do not rejoice at the sight of the death of others, and that’s a big difference.