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Parsha BeShalach: Ding Dong the Witch is Dead

This week’s Torah reading contains the very dramatic Splitting of the Sea episode. Exactly one week after the Israelites left Egypt, they didn’t get very far before Pharaoh and his army followed them in hot pursuit. The Torah narrates how “it was told to the King of Egypt that the nation had fled. And they said, ‘What have we done that we sent Israel from serving us as slaves?!’” 

Pharaoh mounts his chariot, and along with 600 of his top army men, recklessly give chase. Apparently 10 plagues were not enough for this masochistic bunch and they follow headlong into the Splitting Sea that ultimately comes crashing down on their heads, drowning the whole lot. A sad day for Yul Brynner indeed.

At issue is what exactly was this supposed to accomplish? The Israelites seemed to have successfully been redeemed already and it appears that God was merely toying with Pharaoh at this point. This is supported by the fact that the Torah narrates how God hardened Pharaoh’s heart to pursue the Israelites. Were the 10 plagues, culminating with the death of the first born, not enough to get the point across that God has all the power? The Jewish people were home free, why drag this out any longer?

Perhaps a key to understanding the purpose of this event is by noting the reaction of the Israelites when they saw the dead Egyptians washed up on the seashore. What do they do? Why, they break out in spontaneous song. Yes, they suddenly all start singing like one big Broadway cast! They all come out from their positions of cowering fear – out of the bushes of Munchkinland – and begin to sing, “Ding Dong…”

I will sing to God because He is exalted above the arrogant
Horse and rider He has hurled into the sea…
God is a Man of war, God is His name…
Your right hand is glorified in strength,
Your right hand smashes the enemy!
In Your abundant greatness You shatter Your opponents
You send forth Your wrath and it annihilates them like straw

There is a famous Midrash that says that God hushed the angels when they sang praises to Him upon the death of the Egyptians at this time. “My creations lay dying and you wish to sing praises to Me?” People often cite this Midrash to note that one should not be happy with the downfall of an enemy. 

But this is not entirely true. Whereas the Midrash cites God’s disapproval with the angels, no such disapproval is mentioned in the Torah when the Israelites joyously sing when witnessing the Egyptian corpses washed up on the shore. In fact this song is so special that it is incorporated into our prayers. We recite the selfsame song every day in shacharit morning prayers! 

In the book of Psalms, King David writes, אהבי ה’ שנאו רע “Those who love God hate evil”. Yes, hate evil. Not indifferent, not kumbaya “Let’s all get along.” Hate. Pretty strong language.

We are meant to have the highest negative emotion against evil. You see, angels don’t live in a world of free choice. They can only do what God commands of them. Indeed the Hebrew word for angel, malach means messenger and messengers don’t have freewill. They can only do what they are told – no more and no less. As such, angels don’t need to develop a sense of justice, of right versus wrong and good versus evil. It’s not part of their world. And so God hushes them when they sing His praises. It’s untoward for them to do so.  

On the other hand, we humans who live in a world of good and evil and with free-choice to choose one or the other, must constantly struggle to do what is just and good over what is unjust and evil. We need to develop a sense of good versus evil and recognize the corresponding consequences. Hence it is appropriate, necessary and even praiseworthy to stand proud when justice is done, and to rejoice in it. Granted, we wish that nobody would choose to do bad stuff, but given that there will be those who indeed make destructive and bad choices, we must express appreciation when those efforts are thwarted – even to the point that we sing about it. 

It is rightfully festive when we see the likes of Putin struggling in his efforts to conquer a neighboring nation and we hope and pray to quickly see his downfall. We all know it will be a holiday in Ukraine the day he dies or is vanquished or “accidently” falls down the stairs or outside a window. Just like we celebrate the downfall of our historical enemy, Haman, so too it is a day of joy whenever any similar evil leader meets his demise. It is overall good for the welfare of the world.  

Once again, it’s our fervent wish and hope that nobody be wiped out like Pharaoh and his ilk and indeed we remove some wine from our Seder cup at each plague to denote this. But at the same time, we still lift our glasses in celebration when our enemies are vanquished. 

It goes without saying that it is unfortunate when any life is lost, but it is far worse if those people, whose goals are evil and destructive, are allowed to flourish and continue. When they and their evil designs are stopped in their tracks, it’s always a time for celebration. 

Ding-dong! The Witch is dead
Which old Witch? The Wicked Witch!
Ding-dong! The Wicked Witch is dead
Yo-ho, let’s open up and sing and ring the bells out
Ding-dong’s the merry-oh, sing it high, sing it low
Let them know the Wicked Witch is dead!

-The Wizard of Oz/Munchkins  

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