Ari Sacher

‘Hot Hand’ Purim – Parashat Tetzaveh 5783

Things were going exceptionally well for Haman. He had accumulated great wealth. He was the father of ten strapping sons. The king had recently promoted him to the post of Grand Vizier [Esther 5:11], “Above the officials and the king’s courtiers”. Further, Queen Esther had just given a banquet and had invited no-one other than the king and himself and she had invited him to another private banquet the very next day. And yet Haman concedes that he is still unhappy [Esther 5:13]: “All of this is meaningless to me”. Each day when he would come to work in the morning, he would walk past Mordechai the Jew. While every other Persian citizen bowed before Haman, Mordechai did not even bother to stand up. This aggravates Haman to no end and he tells his wife and his friends. They suggest that Haman exorcise his demons [Esther 5:14]: “Zeresh, his wife, and all his friends said, ‘Let them make a gallows fifty cubits high, and in the morning say to the king that they should hang Mordechai on it, and go to the king to the banquet joyfully’”. Haman thinks this is a positively wonderful idea and he immediately erects the gallows.

At this point, things begin to rapidly deteriorate. The king cannot sleep and he has his servants read to him from the Book of Chronicles, where it is discovered that the same Mordechai that Haman wants to hang had saved the king’s life years ago and, due to some royal glitch, had not been rewarded. At that very moment, Haman bangs on the palace door to ask the king permission to hang said Mordechai. Haman does not even get a chance to tell the king about his great idea because as soon as he walks in, the king commands him – the Grand Vizier, of all people – to parade his nemesis, Mordechai, around town on a horse, proclaiming to one and all [Esther 6:9] “So shall be done to the man whom the king wishes to honour!” Haman returns home to his family in shame [Esther 6:12] “Mourning and with his head covered”. He tells his friends and his wife all that has transpired in the last twenty-four hours and they quickly modify their advice [Esther 6:13]: “His wise men and Zeresh, his wife, said to him, ‘If Mordechai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of Jewish stock, you will not prevail against him, but you will surely fall before him.’” Talk about fickle. Only one day earlier they were encouraging Haman to build a gallows and today they were telling him to hang himself on it. So Haman had encountered a little adversity. Why do his comrades not show any kind of camaraderie? One would have expected them to tell Haman to stick to the plan and to press forward. Why did their gumption evaporate so quickly?

A way ahead can be found in the Talmud in Tractate Megillah [16a]. The Talmud notes that when Haman originally bares his heart about how Mordechai is ruining his day, he receives advice from his wife and “his friends” but when he subsequently tells everyone about his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, he receives new advice from “his wise men” and his wife. Where did his “friends” disappear to? The Talmud answers, “Whoever says something wise, even if he is from the nations of the world, is called a wise man.” What was it that the wise men said that made them so wise? The Talmud proposes two solutions: First, the Talmud suggests that they suddenly realized that Mordechai was from the Tribe of Benjamin, a tribe that is impossible to prevail over. This answer is troublesome – were they not aware of this fact the day before? The Talmud proposes another solution: “This Jewish nation is compared in the Bible to the dust of the earth and it is also compared to the stars in heaven. This teaches that when they descend, they descend to the dust, and when they rise, they rise to the stars. Accordingly, when Mordechai is on the rise, you will be utterly incapable of prevailing over him.” This answer is equally troublesome: Just as quickly as Mordechai’s stocks had suddenly gone up, they could crash equally quickly. Why were Haman’s “wise men” so quick to change their minds?

I suggest that the Talmud is being sarcastic[1], suggesting that if these were the wisest men Persia had to offer, it is understandable how they lost world domination to the Greeks. I suggest that not only were Haman’s wise men not at all wise, but that they had fallen for one of the most common cognitive biases, the “Hot Hand Fallacy”. Sometimes during the course of a basketball game, a player, usually Luka Dončić, will begin hitting shot after shot. The difficulty of the shot is irrelevant. Dončić has found his groove and, at that point, he will hit from anywhere on the court. He has what is called a “hot hand”. Usually, when a coach identifies that one of his players has a hot hand, he will attempt to feed that player the ball as often as he can. A paper written in 1985 by Thomas Gilovich, Amos Tversky[2], and Robert Vallone analysed the phenomenon of the hot hand. They wanted to see if a player who had hit three straight shots had a better chance of hitting a fourth shot than a player who had missed three straight shots. Using real NBA data, they discovered that the odds of hitting a fourth shot is statistically independent of the results of the previous three shots. Sorry, Virginia, there is no hot hand[3] and thus was born the “Hot Hand Fallacy”. According to the Decision Lab, the Hot Hand Fallacy “describes our tendency to believe that a successful streak is likely to lead to further success”. I suggest that Haman’s wife and his “wise” friends had contracted a severe case of the Hot Hand Fallacy. After Haman tells them of his successes, they assume that his good luck will continue unabated and so they advise him to build the gallows. As soon as Haman’s luck begins to sour, they assume that his failures will continue and so they advise him to cut his losses.

The Hot Hand Fallacy runs counter to the message of Purim. The Book of Esther consists of a series of coincidences. R’ Thomas Furst[4], writing in “Torah Mysteries Illuminated”, identifies no less than thirteen “coincidences” in the story of Purim such that if only one of these events had not transpired, Haman would have had his way and all of Persian Jewry would have been exterminated. It just happened that out of all the women in the Persian Empire, the king chose Esther, who just happened to be the niece of Mordechai the Jew, who just happened to overhear two courtiers plotting to kill the king and just happened not to be rewarded until the night Haman wants to ask the king for permission to kill him. And so on. One cannot point at any one verse in the Book of Esther and say, “That was Divine Intervention”. Perhaps this is why G-d’s name does not appear even once in the entire Book of Esther. But one cannot look holistically at the Book of Esther and not see G-d. By attributing events to the Hot Hand, Haman’s “wise men” missed seeing the Hand of G-d.

A misunderstanding of the mechanics of chance began not with Haman but with his ancestor, Amalek. The Nation of Amalek launched an unprovoked attack on the Jewish People immediately after the Egyptian exodus, an attack that we are commanded to remember for all eternity [Devarim 25:18]: “Remember how he happened upon you (ko’recha) on the way… Do not forget!” Many medieval commentators[5] link the word “happened” to the verse in the Admonition (Tochecha) [Vayikra 26:21] “If you treat me happenstance (keri)… I will continue to smite you”, meaning that if we accept G-d’s punishments merely as bad luck, then we will be doomed to suffer more. Amalek takes G-d out of the equation entirely. Amalek would have us believe that life is streaky and random and that bad things happen because we happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Purim celebrates the defeat of Amalek in every generation by beholding and recognizing the omnipresent Hand of G-d – in the movement of electrons, tectonic plates and nations, from the three-point shot to the layup.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5783

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Geisha bat Sara, Hila bat Miriam, Avraham Menashe ben Chana Bracha, and Rina bat Hassida.

[1] Rabbi Menachem Liebtag writes an entire essay on the tongue in cheek nature of the Book of Esther, see this link:

[2] Tverksy collaborated with Daniel Kahneman’s landmark research in Behavioural Economics, leading to Kahneman’s Nobel Prize in 2022. Tversky, who died in 1996, received recognition but did not receive a Nobel Prize, as they are not given posthumously.

[3] Subsequent experimentation has been inconclusive.

[4] R’ Furst lives in Great Neck, Long Island.

[5] The Ibn Ezra, Rabbeinu Bachya and the Hizkuni, just to name a few.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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