Friday, November 15, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayishlakh 5774–Biblical Schadenfreude

In most liberal communities, and most Ashkenazic communities, the haftarah used for parashat Vayishlakh is from Hosea. In the Sephardic tradition, and in some Ashkenazic communities, the haftarh for parashat Vayishlakh is taken from Ovadiyah (Obadiah) 1:1-21.

As I’ve written before about the haftarah from Hosea (always an interesting prophet on which to to riff) I thought I might turn to the reading from Ovadiyah.

Ovadiyah is a mystery. There is no direct evidence in the text that tells us when he lived, or even where he lived. Some (mostly Christian) scholars date him to the early part of the 6th century BCE, around 586 BCE. The rabbis of the Talmud associate him with King Ahab, who ruled in the early to middle 9th century BCE. That would make Ovadiyah a contemporary of Eliyahu (Elijah.) That’s quite a difference of opinion in terms of centuries.

Those who place Ovadiyah in 6th century do so on the basis of his focus on Edom as the enemy of Israel (and G”d.) The Edomites, it is believed, assisted the Babylonians in ravaging Jerusalem and with the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE. They note parallels between Ovadiyah and Jeremiah (who started prophesying in 622, during the reign of Josiah, and continued to do so through the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE) though Jeremiah railed against several enemies of Israel, whereas Ovadiyah spoke only against the Edomites.

The rabbis, on the other hand, link Ovadiyah to an official or servant in the book of Kings, in the court of King Ahab, who, when his queen Jezebel sought to kill many prophets, protected them, at his own expense. A wealthy man, he expended his own fortune feeding these prophets, as many as 100 of them, whom he kept hidden in two separate caves, so all might not perish if one hiding place was discovered. For this, he was given the gift of prophecy. The rabbis also note that he was a convert to Judaism and was born an Edomite, so who better to prophecy against Edom.

(Remember that the Edomites are the descendants of Esau, and thus there is one connection to the parasha.)

Ovadiyah tells Edom that G”d has said that they will surely fall, and fall as low as is possible. Their crime? Because they, Esau, acted against their kin, their brother, Yaakov/Israel. They gloated over the triumph over their kin, they participated in the ransacking, and their took from the wealth of their kin. They prevented their kin from escaping, and in this, they acted as spuriously as Amalek.

My favorite line in this entire tirade is this:

וְאַל־תֵּרֶא בְיֽוֹם־אָחִיךָ בְּיוֹם נָכְרוֹ וְאַל־תִּשְׂמַח לִבְנֵֽי־יְהוּדָה בְּיוֹם אָבְדָם וְאַל־תַּגְדֵּל פִּיךָ בְּיוֹם צָרָֽה

You should not have gloated over your kin on the day of their calamity. You should not have rejoiced over the people of Judah on the day of their ruin. And you should not have opened your big mouth on the day of [their] distress. [New JPS – italics mine]

A phrase that doesn’t feel ancient to us at all. Yet here is evidence that it has been around for a very long time (and probably long predates this usage.) You shouldn’t have opened your big mouth. It sounds like a scolding an admonition, we have all encountered at some point in our lives.

Schadenfreude is just not a nice thing. It says so, right here in the Tanakh, in the words of the shortest prophetical book. In fact, Ovadiyah seems to suggest that happiness at the misfortune of others is about one of the biggest sins you can commit, bringing down upon you the full wrath of G”d.

One has to wonder, at what level of sin might G”d still have forgiven the Edomites for assisting the Babylonians against the Kingdom of Judah. G”d certainly seems to forgive people who have acted against their kin. In biblical terms, acting in a dishonorable way like Amalek seems to be the surefire path to damnation, so it’s not likely G”d would forgive the Edomites for the actions that Ovadiyah claims were similar in nature. That, to me, would be the big non-no, the thing that dooms the Edomites, as it doomed Amalek. Yet hold on a minute here: Amalek was an Edomite! So here we are, centuries after the encounter with and supposed destruction of the Amalekites by Moses and his troops, after Amalek’s heinous acts, and Edom persists! Seems G”d did not insure they were totally blotted out. Why does Ovadiyah then invoke the kinship between Israel and Edom to bolster the charges against Edom? Had they not been enemies for centuries? How did the descendants of Esav grow up to be the Amalekites of the time of the Exodus, to be kin who would so betray their kinfolk? How did the Edomites continue to flourish after the time of the Exodus and their being blotted out under heaven? They are the bad guys that just keep coming back. They troubled Israel during the time when Ehud was a judge. King Saul sought to destroy them, but for failing to do so utterly as commanded by G”d, was stripped of his Kingship. King David sought to destroy them, and supposedly did. Whereas Saul could not commit the complete destruction of men, women, children, animals and property (for which G”d deposes him) David fulfill’s G”d’s (frankly heinous and genocidal) request. Yet centuries after David, here they are again, aiding the Babylonians.

After all this bad blood between Israel and Edom, did the family tie between Yaakov and Esav still matter? According to Ovadiyah it did.

As a sidebar, I am forced to ask: in that case, what about the relationship between Isaac and Ishmael, even to this day? Would “Israel” be chastised by G”d for siding with the enemies of Ishmael’s descendants, for gloating over their death and destruction. (Sadly, I see far too many examples of such gloating among the children of Israel, and the children of Ishmael, these days.

In any case, Ovadiyah offers a few reasons why Edom is to be punished (yet again?) Yet for all the chastisements of Edom offered by Ovadiyah, the biggest one seems to be reserved not for having helped someone attack their kin, but for their sin of schadenfreude, and for “opening their big mouths.”

So, if the Edomites had kept their mouths’ shut, maybe they could have escaped the total wrack and ruin that Ovadiyah said G”d was about to bring upon them? So it would be ok for them to think thoughts of schadenfreude as long as they don’t say them out loud? (Is that like lusting in one’s heart?)

Actually, I think Ovadiyah may have a point here. Schadenfreude is not a nice emotion, but it’s one thing to feel in, and another to express it openly, because that causes additional hurt.  The song from “Avenue Q” uses illustrations like a waiter dropping a tray of glasses, figure skaters falling on their asses. Yes, we all indulge in a little schadenfreude. Yet how does that waiter or skater feel when people break out in applause and laughter? Is the way the character Nelson on The Simpsons always runs around gloating and saying “haha” in a very schadenfreude-like way something to which we should aspire? Hardly.

Gloating is an awful thing. It is sticking in the knife and twisting it. Public sharing of our inner schadenfreude is a great sin. Yet it is becoming so prevalent in our society. Gloating over others’ misfortunes seems to be de rigeur, and acceptable. Republicans gloat, Democrats gloat. We read of public rejoicing over 9/11 in some places. We surely gloated over the capture of Sadam, and the death of Bin Laden. In amusement and theme parks, we can see and hear the gloating of people who can afford the amenities upgrades that put them in the front of the line. (Worse yet, than the gloating, are those privileged who are oblivious to the apparent and obvious inequity, but that’s a musing for another day.) I mention this because I don’t want gloating to be seen as the province of any one class of society. Rich folks gloat, poor folks gloat, we all gloat. Well, I think we need an Azazel gloat! We need some way to get rid of this desire, sparked by our inner feelings of schadenfreude, to go public and embarrass.

I suppose I could go on a tirade against the very idea of schadenfreude. It is an ethically a troubling idea. We would, perhaps, be better people if we could learn to not find or feel any happiness at the misfortune of others. Consider, however, this could cause great damage to our concept of comedy.

As I’m still engaged, as I mentioned last week, in re-reading and preparing to study Martin Buber’s “Ich and Du” (I and Thou) I might be tempted to suggest that one cannot feel schadenfreude with another person we see and treat as a You. Yet I am not sure it is at all possible to maintain a constant I-You (or I-Thou) relationship with anyone, that we only have moments of that I-You connection. In between, we will doubtless feel moments of schadenfreude, for it does appear to be human nature to do so. So my goal, rather than striving to eliminate feeling schadenfreude, is, while striving to try not to feel it as often as I can, at least striving to not share it or make it public in any way. To not “open my big fat mouth.”

Well, I seemed to have opened my big fat mouth enough for today. I wish you a

Shabbat Shalom,

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Vayishlakh 5773 - That Other Devorah's Tale
Vayishlakh 5772 - One and Many, Many and One
Vayishlakh 5771/5763 - The Bigger Man
Vayishlakh 5769 - A Fish Called Wonder
Vayishlakh 5768 - No One's in the Kitchen With Dinah
Vayishlakh 5767-Wrestlemania
Vayishlakh 5766-Like Deity, Like Deity's Child
Vayishlakh 5765-B'li Mirmah
Vayishlakh 5762-Don't Get Mad--Get Even!
Vayishlakh 5761-No Doubt? No Wonder!


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