HaShem speaks to us through news headlines. He uses the news because we read the news.
Through headlines, HaShem teaches. He inspires. He warns.
We’ve just seen such a headline. This one is about Hamas.
Hamas hates Jews. It says so in its Charter. It wants to wipe out Israel.
Hamas says in its Charter that there’s no political solution for the ‘Palestinian problem’. There’s only Jihad—holy war against Jews.
Hamas marinates in Jew-hate. It wants to exterminate Jews (“Hamas Spells it Out: Our Aim is the Extermination of the Jews”, Arutz Sheva, July 29, 2014).
Hamas rejects Israel. It says Israel has no future: Israel’s existence contradicts history (Dalit Halevi, “Hamas: Israel exists in contradiction to history”, Arutz Sheva, October 27, 2015).
Hamas is absolutely right. Here’s why:
In the Torah portion we read last week, Lech Lecha (B’reisheet, 12:1-17:27), HaShem spoke to the-then 99-year old Patriarch Avraham (ibid, 17:1). When, in that conversation (ibid, 17:16-17), HaShem tells Avraham he would father a son with his wife Sara, Avraham reacted in two ways. First, he fell to the ground—a prayerful gesture (ibid, 17:17). Then, he laughed (ibid).
Jewish commentaries have been puzzled by this laughter. Why did Avraham laugh?
Major commentators agree that laughter in such a conversation is inappropriate. Sara also laughed at the prospect of having a child (she was perhaps eighty-nine years old); her laughter was considered not appropriate (see B’reisheet, 18: 13-14). Why is Avraham’s laughter different?
Major Jewish commentaries seem to agree about Avraham’s laughter. They argue that, even though there is precedence to say that laughter is a gesture of ridicule, Avraham’s laughter here was appropriate.
For example, take three major Jewish commentaries. Onkelos (perhaps first century CE) translates the Hebrew word used in the text (‘Tzchok’, which normally means, ‘laughter’) as ‘joy’: Avraham heard he would become a father through Sara and rejoiced. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchak, 1040-1105), accepts this translation.
The Ramban (Moshe ben Nachman—‘Nachmanidies’—1194-1270) says the word ‘Tzchok’ as used in this context is an expression of ‘wonderment-joy’. He writes that, “whoever sees some wondrous occurrence that is for his benefit rejoices to the point that his ‘mouth becomes filled with laughter’” (Ramban, ArtScroll edition, B’reisheet 17:17).
These great Jewish commentaries agree. Avraham’s laughter has nothing to do with ‘ridicule’.
But if you look at the commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), you’ll see something completely different. You’ll also discover how that Hamas headline above carries a spiritual reference—a reminder to us about the G-dly nature of the Jewish people.
Hirsch says that in this Biblical interaction, Avraham’s laughter really is connected to ridicule. He begins with the idea that, in Tanach (the Jewish Bible), the word, ‘Tzchok’ is related to other words which, he suggests, generally describe “noticing something which strikes[one] as ridiculous” (Hirsch Commentary on the Torah, translated into English by Isaac Levy, Judaica Press, London, 1966, vol 1, pp. 307).
He then adds, ”where, in the whole world, is there any greater absurd contradiction than” the idea that a 100-year old man and his 90 year-old wife would have a son who would start a great nation? (ibid).
What Hirsch says seems to repeat the content of the Hamas headline quoted above: “according to all the natural conditions of cause and effect, the whole beginning of the Jewish people, its history…must appear [as it clearly does to Hamas] as the most unwarranted laughable pretension” (Hirsch, ibid).
Unwittingly, Hamas shows it understands--with its anti-Israel declaration--that the Jewish nation “was to be, even by its very existence, in opposition to all the ordinary laws of world-history” (Hirsch, p308).
Hamas validates what Hirsch says: Avraham’s laughter “has followed the path of the Jews throughout the course of their history” (ibid). In other words, it’s truly absurd—ridiculous--that the path of Judaism—and the Jewish people—could survive in history.
But Israel does survive, despite the ridiculous improbability of that survival. That survival, Hirsch concludes, is “proof of the Divine nature of this path” (bid).
For Hirsch, that’s the point of Avraham’s laughter: in the “ordinary natural course of events [in ordinary history]” (ibid, p307), Israel’s existence makes no sense. It’s an absurdity. It contradicts historical expectation.
Israel’s survival makes sense only as a manifestation of the “free-willed almighty power of a free-willed Almighty G-d” (ibid, p307).
HaShem speaks to us through headlines. The Hamas headline above reminds us how extraordinary we are. Clearly, Hamas agrees with Hirsch: our existence contradicts history (HaLevy, above, ibid).
We exist because of HaShem, not because of politics, the Holocaust or any other dynamic of human history. Hamas is right. We don’t exist as do other nations. We walk to the beat of a different, more Spiritual drummer. We live because it is the Will of the G-d of Israel.