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Pirkei Avot 4:19: When your Enemy Falls

Samuel the Small would say: When your enemy falls, do not rejoice; when he stumbles, let your heart not be gladdened. Lest God see, and it will be displeasing in His eyes, and He will turn His wrath from him [to you]. (Proverbs 24:17-18).

Samuel the Small did not add anything to the verses in Proverbs. Rather, as Maimonides writes,[1] “he would constantly warn others of the importance of this mannerism and warn against the negative consequences if it is ignored.” Additionally, it was known that whenever he uttered these verses from Proverbs, their message would permeate the hearts of those listening and affect them.[2]

Still, there is a verse that reads, “When the wicked perish, there is song,”[3] but there are a number of qualifications pertaining to this verse:

  • First, the Talmud explains[4] that joy at the fall of an enemy is not proper if the enemy who has perished was a Jew.
  • Second, in any case, the tzaddik displays joy after the downfall of the wicked only because it honors the Heavens, but not because of personal hatred or satisfaction.[5]
  • A person whose deeds are not rectified is not permitted to rejoice at the downfall of his enemy, “And why should he rejoice when he is just like him?”[6]

Joy Sweetens Severity

The Ba’al Shem Tov is reported to have explained that, “When your enemy falls do not rejoice” also serves as a recommendation not to be happy at the downfall of one’s enemy, “for by doing so, you will sweeten the severe judgments against your enemy.” Hence, continues the Ba’al Shem Tov, “it has become imprinted on Jewish nature that we laugh when someone falls, for surely there is some severe judgment upon him, and by laughing, it is sweetened. Thus, he warned not to rejoice in the downfall of the enemy.”[7]

Following these words, we learn that the human tendency to laugh when someone falls stems from a positive source. There was a harsh judgment hanging over this person and that is what caused him to fall. The laughter sweetens the severity and helps him get back on his feet.

Thus, when Sarah said, “God has provided me with laughter—all who hear [that I have given birth to Isaac] will laugh for me,”[8] she meant to erase all the severe judgments that were upon her. The laughter of all those who heard would achieve that. This fits well with the direct meaning of the verses: “When your enemy falls, do not laugh”—for he can still rise. But when he will be completely vanquished, then “When the wicked are eliminated—there is joy.”

From here, we can learn the positive power of joy, “and the positive always has a greater impact than the negative.”[9] The intensity of joy sweetens the severity hanging over someone else and can elevate him from his fall. As we say, “Seven times a tzaddik will fall, and subsequently arise[10]” (this verse comes directly before “When your enemy falls do not rejoice”)!

From Enemy to Beloved Friend

Samuel the Small was so named because he would lessen himself. The numerical value of Samuel the Small (שְׁמוּאֵל הַקָּטָן) is the same as “Israel” (יִשְׂרָאֵל), implying that he represents the totality of the Jewish people, who are likened to the moon,[11] “the small illuminating body.”[12] The Talmud reveals that when God said to the moon, “Go lessen yourself…,” He also said, “Go let tzaddikim be named after you: Samuel the Small.”[13] In a sense, the moon rises and falls every month. Month after month it waxes and wanes. The same is true for Samuel the Small, who engages in the secret of falling and rising.

Some enemies are distant, while others are close. “The enemies of a man are the people of his home”[14] (אֹיְבֵי אִישׁ אַנְשֵׁי בֵיתוֹ). “His home”[15] refers to his wife—representing the moon that falls and renews itself. However, “when a man’s conduct pleases God, He makes even his enemies be at peace with him.”[16] One of the great challenges of our generation is the lack of marital harmony, when a person’s wife stops being his helpmate, but rather opposes him.[17] The rectification for that is for a man to lessen himself, and by doing so, the couple will be transformed from enemies into beloved friends.

Kabbalah teaches that “The enemies of a man are the people of his home” (אֹיְבֵי אִישׁ אַנְשֵׁי בֵיתוֹ) alludes to the unfaithful, temptress woman (known as the “first Eve,” or Lili–[18]). Furthermore, the value of “enemy” (אוֹיֵב) is itself identical to the value of “Eve” (חַוָּה), again, referring to the first Eve whom Adam rejected. In Aramaic, “Eve” is cognate with the word for “snake” (chivya),[19] representing the evil inclination that convinces us to sin and is considered the companion or mate of the first Eve.

In the Bible, the word “enemies” in the verse, “When your enemies fall do not rejoice” (בִּנְפֹל אויביך [אוֹיִבְךָ] אַל־תִּשְׂמָח) is written in the plural form (אויביך), but the word is vowelized and pronounced in its singular form (אוֹיִבְךָ). Inside the revealed, external enemy (represented by the way in which the word is read) there the evil inclination conceals its animosity (represented by the way in which the word is pronounced). Thus, to bring it all together: we have been entrusted with the task of making our evil inclination fall and fail, while transforming that which externally is an enemy into a beloved friend.

[1]. Commentary on the mishnah.

[2]. Pri Tzaddik, Parashat Ki Tissah 7: “Shmuel the Small [whenever he recited this verse] sensed a new reason behind its words and those who would hear the verse from him in its form would also gain a new understanding.”

[3]. Proverbs 11:10 and Sanhedrin 39b.

[4]. Megillah 16a,

[5]. Rabbeinu Yonah.

[6]. Ibid.

[7]. Ba’al Shem Tov Al HaTorah, Parashat Noach, Makor Mayim Chaim, note 153.

[8]. Genesis 21:6: Sarah’s words when Isaac was born.

[9]. Avot DeRabbi Natan 30.

[10]. Proverbs 11:9.

[11]. The Congregation of Israel is like the moon, the sun’s ‘wife.’

[12]. Genesis 1:16.

[13]. Chullin 9b.

[14]. Micah 7:6.

[15]. Mishnah Yoma 1:1.

[16]. Proverbs 16:7. Bereishit Rabbah 54a : “When a man’s ways please God, even his enemies will make peace with him.” Rabbi Yochanan said this refers to his wife, as it is said, “The enemies of a man are the people of his home.”

[17]. The alternate meaning of Genesis 2:18, as brought by Rashi on the verse.

[18]. According to the Arizal, her name should not be pronounced.

[19]. Bereishit Rabbah 20:11.

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