We Should Not Rejoice When a Human Being Falls
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
The service of Hallel consists of six Psalms (113-118), which are recited as a unit on different Jewish festivals, immediately following the Shacharit Amidah. These occasions include the three major festivals, Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, and the minor festival, Chanukah, and Rosh Chodesh. Besides this, it is a new custom to recite it for modern celebrations as Yom Haatzmaut and Yom Y’rushalayim.
It is likely that these psalms have always formed a special unit, and were recited together on the festivals in the Temple of Jerusalem. These psalms are essentially expressions of thanksgiving and joy for future divine redemption.
The Talmud (Masechet Pesachim 118a) tells us that the Hallel includes five major themes: “The remembrance of the exodus from Egypt, the splitting of the Red Sea, the giving of the Torah, the resurrection of the dead, and the pangs of the Messiah.”
In other words, Hallel deals with Jewish history from the birth of our nation to the establishment of the Messianic Era. In Hallel, we express our joy at past miracles and our faith in future redemption.
Since Hallel is a commandment, we must start it with a blessing. The Shulchan Arukh states that Hallel should be said while standing (Orah Hayyim422), and the Mishnah Brurah (a commentary on the Shulhan Arukh) explains that we do so because in Hallel we testify to the glorious miracles that God performed.
We recite Hallel during the festival of Pesach. However, there is a difference between the first two days and the last days. The first days we recite the full Hallel but on the last days we recite half Hallel.
Why do we recite half Hallel during the last days of Pesach? According to our tradition, on the seventh day of Pesach the downfall of the Egyptians occurred at the parting of the sea. That is when the Egyptians were completely and utterly destroyed and broken. Thus, since the real downfall of the Egyptians was on the seventh day of Pesach, a full Hallel would be inappropriate then. On the first days, however, when the Jews were merely freed but the Egyptians were not yet really destroyed, a full Hallel is acceptable.
It is written in the Talmud: “The Holy One, Blessed be He, does not rejoice over the downfall of the wicked. Rabbi Yoḥanan said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “And the one came not near the other all the night” (Exodus 14:20)? The ministering angels wanted to sing their song, for the angels would sing songs to each other, as it states: “And they called out to each other and said” (Isaiah 6:3), but the Holy One, Blessed be He, said: The work of My hands, the Egyptians, are drowning at sea, and you wish to sing songs? This indicates that God does not rejoice over the downfall of the wicked” (Talmud Bavli Masechet Megilla 10b).
The angels wanted to sing but God was angry at them and argued that the divinity cannot rejoice over the downfall of human beings, despite the fact that they were enemies of the people of Israel.
You may find a similar idea in the Passover Haggadah, in the tradition of removing a drop of wine from our cups when we recite each one of the ten plagues. Why do we remove ten drops of wine from our cups? Because we glory in our liberation, but we do not gloat over our fallen foes. So, we celebrate with less than a full cup.
It is written in the Book of Proverbs: “If your enemy falls, do not exult; If he trips, let your heart not rejoice” (Proverbs 24:10).
I believe this is a good lesson for us. We should not rejoice when any human being is fallen. The Hebrews were redeemed, but the Egyptians were drowning. The joy cannot be complete.
The seventh day of Pesach was the day when the Jews were saved, but it was also the day when many Egyptian soldiers drowned in the Red Sea. Although the Jews were saved from death and persecution of the Egyptians, it cannot be a day of full joy, given that human beings lost their lives. God was saddened by the death of the Egyptians, so God is not able to listen to praises.
During the celebration of Passover, when we recall the exodus story, we shouldn’t forget that the Hebrews were saved but several Egyptians died. Our tradition teaches us to be sensitive to such loses. The death of any human being, notwithstanding their convictions, thoughts, and ideologies, cannot be a reason for joy.
Chag Pesach Sameach!