Thursday, January 29, 2009

Bo: Schadenfreude

"There is something in the very nature of the universe which is on the side of Israel in its struggle with every Egypt."--Martin Luther King Jr.

In my piece on Parshas Miketz I pointed out what might have been the first recorded example of institutionalized racism: Bereishis 43:32, where the “Egyptians could not eat [together with the] Hebrews, because it was an abomination for Egypt.” I also discussed in detail the moral implications of exploiting ethno-racial tensions for one’s group benefit.

A similar case occurs in Parshas Bo. As Moses warns Pharaoh of the impending makas bechoros, he tells of the range of victims (Shemos 11:5): “from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne even unto the first born of the maidservant”; and later, when the plague actually takes place (12:29): “from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne even unto the first born of the captive in the pit”. Rashi’s comments are telling: the other slaves and prisoners who were victims of Pharaonic tyranny rejoiced at Israel's suffering and participated in their debasement.

I might have been able to relate to the shvuyim and avadim. During my school-age years, I was not only the classic class nerd-geek, but a nerd-geek li’mehadrin: a loser le’chol hadayos. Even the other nerds would pick on me. Apparently, not only would we be relieved when the powers-that-be would focus their malevolence on someone else; it would indicate that someone else was at the bottom of the pecking order.

Yet I was at a recent Shabbos meal relaying a theory I had about the current conflict in Gaza, that the Palestinian “civilians” of that territory had brought about their own predicament as they had “freely elected” a terrorist government. I heard a complaint that the exhibition of schadenfraude was not a Jewish trait; after all, did not G-d silence the angels when the Egyptians were drowning in the Red Sea? I retorted: one, the angels were silenced, but the Jews kept on singing; two, as the gemara in Megilla (16b) relates when Mordechai gave Haman a kick as he was being helped up onto the King’s horse and Haman weakly quoted “binpol oyivcha al tismach”, Mordechai responded “hani mili be’Yisrael”—but, regarding those such as you—“ve’ata al bamoseimo tidroch”, [you] we will tread upon [their] your heights.

This is especially prevalent nowadays, what with the international community, terrorist sympathizers, and terrorists themselves counting on our deluding ourselves into thinking that self-defense—never mind scahdenfreude—is somehow both dishonorable and un-Jewish. Occasionally, a quote attributed to Caligula may come to mind (“Don’t instruct me how to deal with my enemies”) but an exegesis of Dr. King’s adage that opens this essay should suffice: while one should always be on the side of the Israel against the Egypt, one does NOT need to be on the side of the angels (e.g., as the ones who were instructed by G-d to stop singing at krias yam suf), particularly when one's survival is on the line.

Or, more poignantly, the medrash: "Kol ha-merachem al ha-achzarim, sofo le-achzer al ha-rachmanim"--all who are merciful toward the cruel, will eventually be cruel toward the mmerciful. A more pertinent description of the current moral universe would be hard to find.

Know your Israels.

Know your Egypts.

No comments: