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Angels, Timbrels, and Osama bin Laden - Mo's Journal
May 2nd, 2011
11:02 pm

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Angels, Timbrels, and Osama bin Laden
This started as a discussion on my sister's Facebook page...

Some of the rejoicing over Osama bin Laden's death does seem a little unseemly and excessive to me. On the other hand, I find I'm put off more by the sanctimoniousness of those objecting to any expressions of joy (and summoning fake MLK quotes to back up their holier-than-thou attitudes).

I'm reminded of a midrash (Jewish story, often with a moral point to make). It says that when Pharoah's army drowned at the Sea of Reeds the angels started to sing in rejoicing. G-d silenced them, saying "How can you rejoice when those I created have been destroyed?" It's a story that gets quoted by those who think it's wrong to celebrate a human death, even of someone who has done great harm and wished to continue to.

But there's another half of the story they're not quoting. The Exodus text doesn't talk about the angels - that's the midrash. But it talks about singing and rejoicing. Miriam the prophetess took a timbrel in her hand and all the women followed her, singing and dancing. The Song at the Sea is a central text in the Torah and a central part of Jewish liturgy, as well. And it is a celebration. Here's part of it (JPS translation):

I will sing unto HaShem, for He is highly exalted; the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea.

HaShem is my strength and song, and He is become my salvation; this is my G-d, and I will glorify Him; my father's G-d, and I will exalt Him.

HaShem is a man of war, HaShem is His name.

Pharaoh's chariots and his host hath He cast into the sea, and his chosen captains are sunk in the Red Sea.

The deeps cover them--they went down into the depths like a stone.

Thy right hand, O HaShem, glorious in power, Thy right hand, O HaShem, dasheth in pieces the enemy.


So, we need to ask: why were the angels admonished and we weren't? Why is our celebration not only allowed but encouraged? And the answer is that we can sing and rejoice precisely because we are not angels. Angels are divine beings but they're simple ones. They can only have one thought at a time. They don't live with - or in - contradiction.

Humans, by contrast, are all about contradiction and are well able to have multiple thoughts, multiple emotions, conflicting ideas and feelings and emotional currents all at once. We can be simultaneously cheering the end of a threat to our people and regretting the necessity of human life lost. In fact, we can't help feeling more than one thing at a time.

I saw two middle school-aged boys hug each other this morning when they met at the bus stop. Their whole lives have been lived in the shadow of fear of Osama Bin Laden. I'm very glad they don't have to fear him anymore. I'm proud that we never stopped, that NYC is as vibrant and creative and chaotic and beautiful and diverse as it was on September 10, 2001, but I also know it has changed in ways that can't be undone, that affect all of us, particularly the children. I feel like some small part of the cloud that has hovered over my city for almost 10 years has been lifted.

Being human means living with contradictions and conflicting emotions. I don't want to be an angel. It's not that we should sing because we're not angels but that we can sing because we're not angels. We can sing and do so in knowledge of contradiction, in experience of contradiction, in embodiment of contradiction.

I am both happy and sad. Happy that he's not still out there; happy that there's some resolution; happy that some will feel safer. Sad for all the loss of life; sad for the way my city changed and can't change back; sad that safety can't be achieved just by getting rid of a "bad guy."

But yeah, I think it's fine to celebrate deliverance from an oppressor, even if deliverance involves the oppressor's death. As long as that's not all we do and all we are.

Another quote I was thinking about this morning is from John Donne: "Each man's death diminishes me for I am involved in mankind." I am involved in mankind but I don't feel diminished by Osama bin Laden's death. In fact, part of me feels like picking up a timbrel.

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[User Picture]
From:hominysnark
Date:May 3rd, 2011 10:34 am (UTC)
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Excellent post.

"Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes." ~ Walt Whitman

[User Picture]
From:mofic
Date:May 3rd, 2011 10:51 am (UTC)
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Yeah, I love that Whitman quote. I've used it in fiction a lot...
From:fantasyenabler
Date:May 3rd, 2011 04:11 pm (UTC)
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(and summoning fake MLK quotes to back up their holier-than-thou attitudes).

Yes, thank you! If you're genuinely a follower of the man's teachings and tenets, then you can quote him. But the people who use this quote are obviously not true followers. They're just using him to give false backing to their own opinions.

(Which in its own way is just as bad as the people who celebrate MLK day as "James Earl Ray" day. Which makes me want to punch people...which is a tangent for another day...)

We can be simultaneously cheering the end of a threat to our people and regretting the necessity of human life lost. In fact, we can't help feeling more than one thing at a time.

Excellent point, and again, the people who miss this are performing the type of oversimplification and generalization they accuse the average American of performing. Not saying it doesn't happen, but if you're going to pretend to be "above it all," then you should actually be above it all.

I feel like some small part of the cloud that has hovered over my city for almost 10 years has been lifted.

And that's another point people are missing, about how it doesn't really matter how relevant or irrelevant he'd become to the world at large. He was still very relevant to the American people, particularly the people who were victimized by his actions and the people who've made sacrifices as a result of the terror he unleashed.

For instance, I woke up yesterday morning to see that my Facebook Newsfeed had became awash with posts from many of my military and former military friends and relations. And even as they gave each other Hell, they were all jubilant, all sharing in the sense of accomplishment, all happy that there was something they could finally stick a pin into after all this time. (It went like this: Navy-"We got him; y'all didn't!" Army, Air Force, and Marines-"Who the Hell do you think gathered the Intel? It wasn't you sailors!"[The CIA does a lot of their "gathering" by feeding off of military info.])

So, relevant or not, important or not, it matters. And while I didn't have any desire to go down to the White House, or even post on Facebook, I can totally understand the motivations of the people who did. And I can be happy for them.




From:fantasyenabler
Date:May 3rd, 2011 04:14 pm (UTC)
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"became awash"=become awash.

Ack, I don't text as well as my students do. :)
[User Picture]
From:mofic
Date:May 3rd, 2011 07:00 pm (UTC)
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And while I didn't have any desire to go down to the White House, or even post on Facebook, I can totally understand the motivations of the people who did. And I can be happy for them.

Amen. There's a really good piece in the Times today about the variety of reactions in NYC. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/03/nyregion/joy-at-bin-ladens-death-is-mixed-with-sober-reflection.html?ref=nyregion

It made me cry a few times. One of the people they profile is a rescue worker dying from 9/11 related illness. He says he's glad bin Laden died before he did. Who can blame him?



[User Picture]
From:davidfcooper
Date:May 3rd, 2011 08:32 pm (UTC)
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I largely share your sentiments, but question your prooftext. The Song of the Sea is the oldest language in the Tankh and its Man of war is a primitive, polytheistic tribal deity. But I love your commentary on the midrash.
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