SALT - Monday, 4 Adar Bet 5776 - March 14, 2016

  • Rav David Silverberg

            Yesterday, we noted the Gemara’s comment (Sanhedrin 96b, Gittin 57b) that many generations after the Purim story, descendants (or a descendant) of Haman taught Torah in the city of Bnei-Brak.  One of the questions that arise is why the Gemara found it significant to note the city where this occurred.  Certainly, it is meaningful on several levels that Haman, who set out to eradicate the Jewish Nation, had a descendant who converted and who became a Torah educator.  But what difference would it have made if this descendant had lived and taught somewhere else?  Why did Chazal find it worthwhile to mention that he taught in Bnei-Brak?


            It has been suggested that Bnei-Brak is mentioned for the sake of associating this descendant of Haman with Rabbi Akiva, who, as we know from several sources, lived and worked in this city.  Among the characteristics that made Rabbi Akiva unique was his unparalleled optimism.  This is perhaps most pronounced in the famous story told in the closing passage of Masekhet Makkot, where Rabbi Akiva’s colleagues wept as they saw the ruins of the Temple after its destruction.  To their astonishment, Rabbi Akiva reacted to seeing the sight with laughter.   He explained to his colleagues that when he saw the Temple ruins, the fulfillment of the prophecies of destruction, he was reminded and reassured of the ultimate fulfillment of the prophecies foreseeing Jerusalem’s spectacular restoration.  Rabbi Akiva had the ability to see the good in even the darkest and gloomiest circumstances, and indeed, the Gemara (Berakhot 60b) tells that Rabbi Akiva regularly declared, “Gam zu le-tova” – “This, too, is for the best” – even under the harshest conditions.

            For this reason, perhaps, the Gemara wanted to draw our attention to the fact that Haman’s descendant taught Torah specifically in Bnei-Brak, in the city of Rabbi Akiva, the place associated with unbridled optimism and positivity.  The emergence of a Torah scholar from Haman is itself a powerful expression of “gam zu le-tova,” that ultimately, on some level, in some way, all is good.  Even within an evil man such a Haman, there is a kernel of goodness that can and will, at some point, blossom.

            On Purim there is a mitzva to drink to the point of (mild) inebriation – an obligation which stands in stark contrast to our tradition’s strong stance discouraging intoxication.  Throughout the rest of the year, we are not given the option of escaping from the troubles and evils of the world.  We are to confront the harsh realities of life, carefully distinguishing between “Mordekhai” and “Haman,” between the good that needs to be promoted and the evil that needs to be defeated, and work to achieve these objectives.  On Purim, however, we drink to the point where the lines are blurred, reminding ourselves that ultimately, everything is good.  We draw inspiration from Bnei-Brak, from Rabbi Akiva’s optimism and from Haman’s descendant who became a righteous scholar, encouraging ourselves with the knowledge that hope is never lost, and optimism and joy can be found in all situations and under the most trying circumstances.