This Year in Falluja
by Rabbi Avi Shafran
The contrast hit like a deep whiff of freshly ground horseradish.
It was in fact mere days before the pungent condiment would be prepared in countless Jewish homes as part of the Passover Seder meal when the images of barbarism and brutality were beamed from Iraq to countless breakfast tables. And they comprised a stunningly stark opposition to a conspicuous aspect of the Jewish holiday about to arrive.
The first photographs, from Falluja, were of the burned, beaten and dismembered remains of four American contractors hung by Iraqis from a bridge over the Euphrates River so that the body parts could be further abused by passers-by. The visages of Iraqi adults and children alike were immortalized in exultation over the carnage. Tender and wizened faces alike smiled broadly for the cameras, their owners ecstatic with the sating of some unimaginable lust that must reside in some souls.
Other photos of reveling in revenge followed on the days of Passover itself. One showed a cheerful Iraqi holding aloft the boots of a dead marine; several more, Iraqis laughing as they danced around burning American vehicles or dead Americans.
It's not impossible to imagine how some Iraqis might resent American troops in their land, despite our country's decisive role in removing Iraq's malevolent dictator, and our goal of fostering freedom, democracy and broad prosperity where they have never existed. Such resentment is tragically misguided, to be sure, but it takes a certain degree of wisdom to recognize a benevolent and temporary occupation for what it is.
What is beyond any civilized comprehension, though, is the gleeful savagery. To be sure, it is nothing new. We have seen much of the same from, for instance, Palestinians, they of the dancing and candy-throwing after mass-murders of Jews on buses or in restaurants, they of the bloody hands proudly held up to the window in Ramalla after the lynching of captured and disarmed Israeli soldiers.
But such inhuman behavior does not - and should not -lose its ability to shock.
And coming, as it recently did, at Passover time, the ugliness could not but particularly command the attention of those familiar with the essence of the holiday.
Passover, of course, commemorates the liberation of our people from their enslavement in ancient Egypt. And part of that story, undeniably, is the divine vengeance visited upon the taskmasters, from the first of the ten plagues until the destruction of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea.
What is remarkable, though, and trenchant, is that, despite our ancestors' endurance of hundreds of years of slavery and cruelty - including institutionalized infanticide - at the hands of their oppressors, Passover's focus is pointedly not on revenge but on freedom.
In fact, at the Seder itself, even as the story of the exodus is recounted, wine is spilled from the participants' cups in recognition, the sources explain, of the tragedy inherent in the loss of Egyptian life. The Midrash has G-d silencing the singing angels at the Red Sea with the words "My creations are drowning in the sea and you sing?"
There is a point, to be sure, during the Seder when the celebratory mood is momentarily interrupted and attention paid to the never-ending hatred that some "in every generation" have for Jews; a short prayer beseeching G-d to pour His wrath on His enemies is recited. But it is no call to jihad, but rather a firm declaration of faith in divine justice. When evil will fall once and for all, it will be at G-d's hands, and the avenged will watch in awe, not rejoice in devastation.
Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, a Jewish religious luminary who died in 1926, remarked on the fact that, even though the first Passover lasted but one day, Moses informed the ancient Jews about the Passover week, bounded on each end by a festival day, even before the exodus transpired. Although the final day of the holiday would be celebrated only by future generations, the great rabbi noted, it had to be "pre-announced" to avoid it being regarded as a celebration of the Egyptian army's destruction, which took place on the seventh day after the Jews left Egypt. It in fact, like the rest of the holiday, celebrates only freedom and Jewish nationhood, not the deaths of enemies.
Preserving humanity amid enmity, it would seem, occupies a prominent place in the Passover universe.
Many Jewish concepts - monotheism, charity, the value of learning, of justice, of law -have come to spread through the world. True respect for humanity, though, seems a particular challenge for some. Its time, though, will come.
May it be soon, in fulfillment of the hope we express in song at the Seder's end, that next year will find us in a rebuilt, vibrant and peaceful Jerusalem.
[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]
Reprinted with permission from Am Echad Resources