Surprise, Surprise

In perhaps one of the least likely places in the world for such an event to occur, 26 people were privy to a real-life v’nahafoch-hu experience. We can leave the floor open for discussion regarding whether or not it should be considered mere coincidence that this incident occurred during the week of Purim; but that it was quite a topsy-turvy situation is not really disputable.

On Monday, March 21, according to an online report, 26 visitors to The Happy Valley Amusement Park in Beijing, China, got to see what the world looks like upside down from a significant height. While they were on the park’s most popular roller coaster, Crystal Wing, the ride suddenly came to an abrupt halt. For 18 minutes. While they were upside down. Yes, you read that right. Completely unexpectedly, the coaster stopped its coasting right as they were on one of those loops that have the riders screaming in glee from being twisted and turned upside down. And they were stuck like that for a full 18 minutes.

In all likelihood, those happy Crystal Wing riders in Happy Valley ceased feeling so happy long before those 18 minutes were up. Perhaps the most comical part of the story (to those of us who got to read about it in an upright position) is that the whole ordeal was caused by a bird. Yes, a bird. Apparently needing a break from its aeronautic activity, a fine feathered friend alighted on a particular sensor that triggered an automatic emergency-response mechanism in the roller coaster which brought it grinding to a halt. That bird’s need for a bit of rest is how those 26 riders in Beijing got to have their very own — albeit perhaps unwanted — v’nahafoch hu experience.

By the way, just in case anyone reading this thinks that it was inspired by the after-effects of seudas Purim, let me clarify: I did not make up this story!

Now, all kidding aside — well, as much as can be expected when discussing such a slapstick event — we’ve got to try to imagine what this experience was like. Here they are — all these thrill-seekers — having the time of their lives, probably hooting and hollering in delight as the Crystal Wing made its way through ridiculously fast drops, nausea-inducing twists and turns, and upside-down loops that are just what your GI tract was hoping for after a lunch of double-decker hamburgers and a giant cola to wash it down. What fun. Personally, I never saw the appeal in roller coasters. Still don’t. The Scooby Doo was the absolute maximum my father was able to get me to try as a kid. And even that was way over the top for me. But I seem to be a real daas yachid when it comes to this one, as most of humanity apparently loves these things and theme parks cash in on this big time.

So, as we were saying, here they are, these intrepid daredevils thoroughly enjoying every second of their worth-every-yen-of-it ride when, in a split second, their world is turned upside down. Literally, but also figuratively. What was one moment providing their greatest joy became, in the next moment, the source of their difficult-to-relate-to discomfort. And that’s putting it awfully mildly.

Now that sounds uncannily similar to the Purim story, doesn’t it? One moment, Haman was on top of the world — the man had everything! — and Klal ­Yisrael had the executioner’s sword hovering over their necks; and in a split second everything was turned upside-down. Haman got to experience the thrill of getting an open-air view of Shushan from 75 feet (25m) high (that’s taller than a seven-story building), and Klal ­Yisrael, led by Mordechai and Esther, were catapulted to a position of utmost respect, esteem and downright awe. All it took was a few well-placed words to the right person, in the right place, and at the right time, and boom! V’nahafoch hu. The very string of events that was bringing Haman so much success and joy became the mechanism that taught him what can happen to the arrogantly-stretched neck of the haughty. Surprise, surprise.

And it’s not only in this world that we sometimes see such surprises. The Gemara (Maseches Pesachim 50a) recounts one of the very early instances of an individual regaining consciousness despite having been clinically dead. Rav Yosef, the son of Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi, the Gemara there recounts, became ill and entered a state of clinical death. His breath, as Rashi explains, completely left him. In modern terminology that would be the equivalent of someone collapsing from cardiac arrest and not responding to CPR or a defibrillator. But he came back. How, the Gemara there does not say; but come back to life he did.

Well, this ethereal experience obviously couldn’t go by without some lesson; and, sure enough, Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi queried his son: “What did you see?” That’s intriguing, considering the fact that Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi was given a tour of Gan Eden — while still alive — by none other than the malach ha’maves himself; and, once there, he refused to leave (see Maseches Kesubos 77b). But that later excursion was at the very end of Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi’s time on this world.

In any event, Rav Yosef answered his father’s question with these immortal words: “Olam hafuch ra’isi — I saw an upside-down world.” Why was it upside down? “Elyonim l’matah v’tachtonim l’maalah.” The bigshots of this world were given but mere lightweight stature up there, and the little guys down here were the big names up there (the exception to this rule was talmidei chachamim, which deserves a discussion in and of itself). “My son,” Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi told him, “what you saw was a world of brilliant clarity.” Surprise, surprise.

This Gemara brings to mind a story that I once read in For Goodness’ Sake (by Rabbi Boruch Brull) about Rav Mendel Kaplan, zt”l. Shortly after joining the teaching staff in the Yeshiva of Philadelphia, Rav Mendel met “Ploni.” He was called that because no one knew his name. Ploni was an indigent fellow who came around now and then with an outstretched hand. Personal hygiene seemed to be something Ploni knew little or nothing about, and the bachurim would quickly give him a few coins and move away since his odor was unbearable. Rav Mendel, though, walked right up to Ploni and gave him a warm hug. The next day, one of the bachurim mustered up his courage and asked his new rebbi how he was able to do such a thing. The answer was classic Rav Mendel Kaplan: “Just remember, there are times when we, Klal Yisrael, don’t look too great, either, yet Hashem looks down at us and still gives us a big hug. You know, sometimes a person is put into this world to go through suffering. He may be given this suffering not necessarily for himself, but for others. Maybe even us.” What an eye opener! Here you have this indigent, nondescript fellow who is practically at the lowest rung of the social ladder, and after 120 he just may be discovered to be greater and more important than us all!

This world — and the next — is full of surprises, twists of plot that we would not have expected in a million years. That’s a thought which ought to be as encouraging as it can be sobering.

For those relatively select few who’ve “got the whole wide world in their hands,” the Purim lesson of v’nahafoch hu should be something of a reality check. Success — both material and spiritual — can be intoxicating. It can be practically seductive in the way it induces smugness in the heart and mind. That’s why it’s good to get at least a once-a-year reminder that this world — as the great Amora Rabi Chiya once told his wife — can be a lot like those roller-coaster loops: one moment you’re way up, and the next moment a person can find himself plummeting down. The wheel of fortune doesn’t stop spinning (Shabbos 151b).

At the same time, for those 999 out of 1,000[1] for whom life seems to be a never-ending struggle — often with no light visible at the end of the tunnel — the timeless message of v’nahafoch hu can and should be a great source of comfort and encouragement. That even though we may sometimes (or even often) feel as though we are stuck hanging upside-down on that halted roller coaster — with no way to set ourselves free — the reality is that we are in for a big surprise. Not only because our fate can take a drastic shift in the blink of an eye, but also because we will one day discover the true value of everything we worked so hard at in this world. One day, we will enter a world that at first looks completely upside-down, but in reality is the world of brilliant clarity. There, in that world, we will see how esteemed and cherished we are for all the hard work that we put in down here in this world. All that endless effort that so often seemed to amount to absolutely nothing will suddenly shine forth with the brilliant, lustrous light that it truly possesses.

Yes, life is full of surprises.


[1]. See Mesillas Yesharim (chapter 1): “And you can see clearly that no thinking person could believe that the purpose of man’s creation is for his state of being in this world. After all, what is human life in this world? Is there anyone who is really happy and tranquil in this world? The days of our years reach 70 years, and with great strength 80 years, and the majority of them are with toil and iniquity, with so many types of difficulty, sicknesses, pains, and burdens. And after all that, death. You cannot find even one person out of 1,000 for whom this world provides him with a majority of truly pleasant, tranquil experiences…”