Twitter is often contentious, but sometimes it turns truly savage. The death of the talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh, who could himself certainly be savage, touched off an explosion of gleeful celebration on the site. “For everyone about to tweet out a joke or otherwise revel in the death of Rush Limbaugh I just ask that you pause and ask yourself: am I going big enough?” one user tweeted, urging her followers, “Don’t hold back.”
In my more than 30 years as a rabbi, I have stood at the graves of many people. Some were kind and others less so. Some had a reputation that any of us would envy; others had ruined their public standing through acts or words that followed them throughout their life. But what consistently struck me was the raw, depthless fact of grief.
I have watched people try to throw themselves onto graves, claw and clutch at their throat, at the coffin, at their remaining relatives, huddled in almost paralytic pain. In all its varieties, from silent to wailing, grief expresses the reality that a person can stand before you no longer, hold you no longer, speak and be with you no longer in this world. Death is impossible to understand; that someone with whom I shared a moment yesterday, who was vivid and alive, is now in a box and being lowered into the ground forever is not a fact that the brain can comprehend. And to see such grief, over and over, makes it impossible to view death as frivolous or an occasion for jubilation.
The impulse to celebrate the death of one’s enemies is very human. “When the wicked perish there are shouts of joy,” the Book of Proverbs says. The passage is descriptive, of course, not prescriptive, but there is nonetheless a recognition of the upsurge of excitement at seeing someone you detest leave this Earth. At the Red Sea, the children of Israel sang as the Egyptians who had pursued them drowned.
But Proverbs also says, “Do not be glad when your enemy falls.” The Talmud relates that when the angels joined in the celebration at the Red Sea, they were rebuked by God for rejoicing. And today, when Jews commemorate their exodus from Egypt at the Passover seder, we take a drop of wine from the cup to mark the diminishment of joy we should feel at death, even the death of our enemies. Feelings cannot always be regulated, but the reality of death supervenes, and any expression of happiness should be tempered by sadness.
The taboo against rejoicing at another’s death is, of course, part of the frisson of shocking jokes, which work because of the first, aghast instant. The rationale for telling such jokes is easily understood. Those who celebrate the death of public figures invariably point to their malign influence. And while people are still in the public arena and able to fight back, ridiculing their ideas can be an important weapon. Humor has punctured many totalitarians more effectively than argument.
But there is a difference between condemning someone at or after their death—and certainly, there is much to condemn in Limbaugh’s periodic rhetoric of cruelty—and celebrating the death itself. The tone of our public sphere will not be elevated by the way we talk about those we like or treasure. The test will be how we talk about those we oppose or even detest. Ridicule rallies the troops; it does not open avenues of dialogue. Limbaugh’s signature monologues were fusillades of facts, confabulations, and insults in prose and song, in the service of a relentlessly partisan agenda. To celebrate his death is to emulate his methods.
We should have learned by now that a public figure is a person. The character onstage, performing for an audience, is not everything, and a public person does not die. A human being dies, an individual with connections and fears and a history and a soul.
To mock someone’s death is also to mock the pain of those who loved him. It is to see only part of a person, and therefore ignore the fullness of a human being. What better way to begin the restoration of civility than to refrain from dancing on the graves of the dead?