Like so many Americans and people around the world, I’ve been riveted by the news of Osama bin Laden’s death on Sunday. 10 years ago, on that fateful September morning, I woke up as news of the first attacks on the Twin Towers interrupted the regularly scheduled programming—and the next decade of our lives.
Sunday night, I was getting ready to sleep when the news flashed that bin Laden was dead. I sat on the edge of my bed, riveted. Commentators proclaimed this “the defining moment of the Obama presidency!” Young people, adorned in American flags, danced in the streets in front of the White House. Family of loved ones who died on 9-11 gathered quietly in the twilight, near the hole where the Twin Towers once stood. Now, I wondered, might they finally be able to rest?
I searched my soul for a full response. As a rabbi, I look to Jewish tradition and our sacred text for guidance. Proverbs teaches, “When the wicked perish there is song.”
I viscerally understand the dancing in the streets, the spontaneous expression of joy and relief, a collective anthem of rebuke for the wicked evil bin Laden deployed throughout the world. He was a murderous, vile, despicable man—y’mach sh’mo—may his memory be erased!
When the wicked are killed, what does that song sound like?
Jewish spiritual tradition demands humility, even in the face of hatred. In the Exodus story, we are taught that Pharaoh’s army pursues the newly freed Israelites. When the soldiers are swallowed by the sea and drowned, the former slaves sing and dance. A midrash (rabbinic legend) does not portray this outburst favorably. “The Holy One rebuked us,” we are taught. How can you sing now? Look what I had to do to my creation!”
Look what I had to do to my creation.
I do not dispute that bin Laden got what he deserved, nor that we are better off as a country and a world that he is dead.
But I cannot fully rejoice at the death of another human being, even a monster like bin Laden.
This is a time of embrace, to humbly consider our future as a nation, as a people who cling to hope.
Hope that we will now engage one another in a national conversation about our ethic of care for our neighbor in addition to keeping safe from our enemies.
Hope we can learn from our differences and celebrate our shared American story.
Hope that we can imagine a new future for humanity and our planet.
Hope that we best honor the victims of terrorism and their loving survivors by restoring our national dream of compassion, independence, liberty, and justice for every citizen of this great land.
So I sing, but I sing softly.
With gratitude to my colleagues, Rabbi Lisa Tzur & Dan Moskowitz for their inspiration.