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Last Laughs

Why Jewish history is like a pendulum, swinging between the two poles of disaster and triumph

Idi Amin was said to have a sense of humor. Pol Pot liked to crack jokes. Stalin apparently had a deadpan style of one-liners (although that may have been confused with “dead man.”) At any rate, being a dictator and mass-murderer is no hindrance to stand-up comedy — whether your henchmen like your gags or not, they’ll jolly well make sure to laugh.

So, the crucial Purim question is, did Haman have a sense of humor? Being a Nazi genocidaire, he may well have suffered from a Teutonic deficit in that department. Frustratingly, the mefarshim don’t seem to elaborate on this intriguing question.

At any rate, there’s a scene in Megillas Esther that he definitely didn’t find funny, but which should give us heart in these somber times.

One evening, Haman returns home from a very bad day at the office. He’s been forced to lead his nemesis, Mordechai, through the streets of the capital in a triumphal procession. His own daughter has dumped the contents of a chamber pot on his head, to boot.

But instead of a cup of tea and commiseration, Haman’s wife Zeresh piles on the pressure. “If Mordechai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of Jewish descent, you will not prevail against him, but will undoubtedly fall before him,” she intones.

How’s that for shalom bayis? I mean, Haman may have been a monster, but even mass-murderers sometimes need a shoulder to cry on, Why was Zeresh so adamant that Haman was finished?

Like the top-rank of Jew-haters throughout history, such as Adolf Hitler, Haman and his circle understood that a showdown with the Jewish People was a metaphysical clash with a supernatural entity.

Am Yisrael, Zeresh knew, has only two settings: extraordinary success and disaster. There is no middle ground. As the Midrash puts it: “This nation is compared to the stars and to the earth: When they go down, they descend to the dirt, and when they rise, they ascend to the stars.”

That dichotomy is offered in parshas Re’eh, says the Seforno, “Ponder and see that your situation won’t be an average one like other nations, because I place in front of you today a choice between blessing and curse, which are two extremes. Because brachah is extreme success, and klalah is extreme deprivation.”

That stark choice was built in to the Jewish People’s DNA from the birth of Yitzchak Avinu, says Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch. Born amid disbelieving laughter to a 100-year-old father and a mother of 90, Yitzchak’s entire existence was improbable — virtually a joke. How could the child of such ancient parents be expected to thrive, never mind found an eternal nation? And if Am Yisrael was meant to come into existence, why through such shaky foundations?

The answer, says Rav Hirsch, is that Hashem wanted to create a nation that would be a “finger of G-d inside history” — whose very existence and continued survival would be so improbable as to make it clear evidence that the ebb and flow of world events are governed by a Divine Power.

And that is why Jewish history is like a pendulum, swinging between the two poles of disaster and triumph, golden age and expulsion, Holocaust and rebirth, dust and stars.

Almost six months ago, the pendulum swung sharply to catastrophe: To the astonishment of the world, the strongest state in the Middle East was overrun by a band of murderous peasants. October 7 initiated a period of calamity that vies with any in Jewish history.

After half a year of warfare, things look bleak. Despite the many Jewish lives lost, Hamas is undefeated. Hezbollah still threatens from the north, and Israel is increasingly friendless as Iran looms over the horizon. Where does it all end?

But look at Zeresh’s words, and there’s hope: “When they go down, they descend to the dirt, and when they rise, they ascend to the stars,” she said. For the Jewish People, disaster and triumph, klalah and brachah, dirt and stars are two sides of the same miraculous coin. The one can easily flip to the other.

There has never been anything natural about Jewish survival. Our postwar rebirth, like a phoenix rising from the ashes of Holocaust destruction, has all the signs of the same extreme pendulum pattern that governs Jewish history.

As we enter the most somber Purim since the Holocaust, Khamenei, Nasrallah, and Sinwar are doing all the laughing. But that joke at our expense is premature. The Jewish People may be the impossibility, the joker in the historical pack, gyrating between success and failure — but the last laugh is still up for grabs.

“Avraham’s son was called Yitzchak,” says Rav Hirsch, because “ ‘Az yemalei sechok pinu,’ and Yitzchak means ‘he will laugh.’ ”

This Purim, may we all merit to experience that punch line.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1004)

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