Making fun of the scoffers
by Jonathan Rosenblum
Baltimore Jewish Times
March 5, 2004
Purim celebrates the triumph of the Jewish people over Haman. That triumph presages the destruction at the end of time of Amalek, from whom Haman descends.
Amalek is the antithesis of the Jewish people, and that is why his end must be destruction: "Amalek is the first of the nations, and his end is destruction" (Numbers 24:20). Amalek was the first of the nation to engage the Jewish people in battle upon our exodus from Egypt, and God’s full revelation in history is only complete with his destruction.
Amalek personifies the quality of scoffing. He attributes importance to nothing. Life does not exist for him beyond the immediate moment. The Jewish people, by contrast, are defined by their relationship with a transcendental G-d, Who imbues every moment with meaning.
Esav, Amalek’s grandfather, sold his birthright for a pot of lentils because the divine service that went with the birthright meant nothing to him: "And he ate and drank and got up and went and despised the birthright" (Genesis 25:34). The series of short, active verbs, in rapid fire succession capture Esav – all action and no reflection. He was little more than an animal fulfilling his instincts.
At the culmination of his wrestling match with the guardian angel of Esav, Yaakov asks the angel his name, and the angel replies, "Why do you ask me my name?" The angel of Esav was not following the time-honored Jewish custom of answering a question with a question, but rather saying, "I have no name, no essence. I represent a world where all values are transitory and provisional."
A child asks her mother, what she should want to be when she grows up, and the mother responds, "Good-looking, popular, rich, and powerful." But when the child probes further, the mother can do no better than to cut her off curtly, "Because everyone wants those things." The mother’s inability to point to any standard other than popular opinion mimics the inability of the angel of Esav to define his essence.
Until Amalek attacked Israel, all the nations trembled before Israel, for they had heard of the miracles G-d did on their behalf. But once Amalek attacked, the awe of Israel and their G-d was diminished. Though Amalek was routed, others came in his place, reasoning that it was only a matter of adopting better tactics. Thus our Sages compare Amalek to one who jumps into a boiling bath: Even though he is scalded, he cools off the bath for all who come after him.
Amalek cut off the sign of the covenant between G-d and Avraham from the Jews he killed and cast it towards Heaven, as if to deny the existence of a transcendant G-d by mocking His covenant. Amalek’s descendant Haman was a scoffer in the same mold. According to the Midrash, when he first proposed to Achashverosh to destroy the entire Jewish people, the latter warned him that it was dangerous to start up with the Jewish people and their G-d. Witness the horrible end that came to Pharoah, Sancheriv, and Nebuchanezar. Haman mockingly replied, "Their G-d has grown old."
ON PURIM WE PERMIT ourselves a degree of levity unequaled during the rest of the year. Yet even our drunkenness has (or at least should have) nothing to do with the light-headedness of the normal drunk. "Wine enters and secrets go out," say our Sages. Both the Hebrew for wine (yai’in) and secret (sod) have the numerical value of seventy, equal to the seventy faces of the Torah.
Ideally what comes out ideally is secrets of Torah revealed at no other time of the year. And I have seen this by great Torah scholars. A friend once commented about Rabbi Aharon Feldman, today the Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Israel, "When you visit Reb Aharon the rest of the year, he asks you how you are and then starts speaking words of Torah. On Purim, he forgets to ask you how you are."
Normally we do not give full vent to our laughter. That is reserved for a future time: "Then will our mouths be filled with laughter"(Psalms 126:2). On Purim, however, we show no such restraint. Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, one of the towering figures of pre-War European Jewry, was never seen to smile during the year. Yet he would laugh so hard during the Purimspiel that he would beg the performers to stop.
Externally, the laughter of the day appears to be the same as that of the scoffer. But it is, in truth, the opposite. Our scoffing is directed at the scoffers, at all those who view life as merely marking time and stimulating the nerve endings at Esav/Amalek/Haman. The scoffer trivializes life and denies it meaning. By turning our laughter on the scoffers, we thereby affirm the importance of life.
The scoffer can never redeem himself because he is immune to reproof. Effective reproof depends on an appeal to some ultimate values. But that is precisely what the scoffer denies. Thus Amalek has no possibility of salvation at the end of days. Destruction is his fate, just as it was Haman’s.
At that final Revelation of the meaning of all human history, when all the Amaleks and Hamans are destroyed forever, then we will finally give vent to the laughter foreshadowed in our laughter on Purim.
Related Topics: Jewish Holidays, Purim
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