The No-Jackpot Lottery

by Rabbi Mendel Weinbach zt'l
Amalek and the philosophy of 'coincidence'
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The No-Jackpot Lottery by Rabbi Mendel Weinbach

"Lotto" of Israel's Mifal Hapayis. The New York State Lottery. The Irish Sweepstakes. The Football Pools.

These are just a few of the famous lotteries which regularly offer jackpots of small fortunes to a hopeful public dreaming of becoming overnight millionaires with a small investment.

But the most important lottery of all time was one with no jackpot of money. Its prize was the fate of an entire people. This was the lottery of the wicked Haman which endows the holiday of Purim with its name -- the Feast of Lots.

Haman cast lots to determine an appropriate date for his final solution to the Jewish problem some two and a half millennia ago. The Divine intervention which foiled his genocidal plot is what is remembered and celebrated by Jews each year on that very date.

What is the significance of Haman's casting of lots which entitles it to such a central role in recalling Jewry's deliverance from its enemies?

On the Shabbat before Purim we perform the once-a-year mitzvah of recalling what Amalek did to us. We read in the Synagogue a section of the Torah (Devarim 25:17-19) which describes the vicious ambush which the Amalekite nation perpetrated against our weary and thirsty ancestors on their way out of Egyptian bondage. The term used by the Torah to describe this vicious aggression is "asher karcha baderech," which is interpreted either as "he cooled you off" or "he happened upon you."

Amalek, the sworn enemy of G-d and His chosen people, was determined to challenge the aura of Israel's invincibility created by the miracles of the ten plagues and the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. Amalek is compared by our Sages to the fellow who dives into a boiling hot bath which all others are afraid to enter. Although he emerges badly scalded, he succeeds in cooling off the water for those who may follow. All nations who heard of the Divinely orchestrated miracles which rescued Israel from the Egyptians shuddered at the thought of any military action against G-d's people. But Amalek recklessly plunged into this steaming bath. He was indeed battered by a Jewish army looking at Moshe's upraised hands as a signal to rely on Heavenly help. But he succeeded in cooling off Israel's reputation.

Amalek's purpose in this interpretation of "asher karcha" can be understood by applying the complementary interpretation of "he happened upon you." Miracles can be seen either as an expression of a Divine force in control of worldly affairs or as the random manifestation of coincidence. When the Prophet Eliyahu prayed for fire to come down from heaven in order to discredit the idolatrous prophets on Mount Carmel, he cried out "Answer me, Hashem, answer me!" The double entreaty, explain our Sages, was for fire to miraculously rain down from heaven, and for the assembled onlookers to accept it as a Divine miracle and not the work of human magic.

The non-believer is so determined to resist the responsibility of subservience to a Divine ruler that he will stretch his imagination to unbelievable lengths to discredit miracles as either magic or coincidence. This is why the great miracles of history and the minor ones of today still leave so many people unconvinced of Divine providence.

Amalek "happened upon you" because Amalek's entire approach to earthly affairs is one of things "just happening" and not Divinely determined. This is what he set out to prove with his military challenge to Israel. And this is what the descendant of Amalek, Haman, wished to express with his casting of lots. As he plans to carry out the genocidal mission initiated by his ancestors, he refuses to attribute the failure of that first effort to Divine intervention. Things like that "just happen" and he will cast lots to see what date coincidence will indicate as a suitable one for another attempt at a final solution.

But it is not only Amalekites who fail to see the Hand of Hashem in everything. Many of us also fall prey to the temptation of attributing things to coincidence. When Jewry demonstrates a particular spiritual weakness, our scholars point out, Hashem sends a nation personifying that characteristic to shock us into a realization of where we went wrong. Immediately after the Jews suffering from thirst in the desert raise the question "Is Hashem amongst us or not?" (Shmot 17:7), Amalek, the personification of coincidence, arrives on the scene to bring home a Divine lesson.

When this weakness emerges again in the exile twilight between the two Beit Hamikdash periods, it is the descendant of Amalek who is delegated by Heaven to shock Jewry into abandoning its inclination towards seeing the world through the warped lenses of coincidence.

This is why the holiday celebrating the Divine redemption resulting from our repentance from that sin is called Purim. It is our way of triumphantly declaring to the world that there is no coincidence, and that the real jackpot in Haman's lottery was this dramatic demonstration of Divine Providence.

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