c. 2003 Religion News Service

The biblical book of Esther, which will be read in synagoguesthroughout the world on Monday evening, March 17, is the narrative for theannual Jewish holiday of Purim.

Although a biblical text, Esther is a thoroughly modern story.

There is an intermarriage between Ahasuerus, the addled king of ancientPersia (today's Iran), and Esther, a Jewish woman, who becomes the queen bywinning a beauty contest. Esther and her relative, Mordecai, outwit Haman,Ahasuerus' prime minister, who sought the mass murder of the Jewish peoplein Persia.

At first, the weak king approved Haman's genocidal plans. PerhapsAhasuerus didn't actually read the text of the evil decree or perhaps he didunderstand the ugly words but signed off anyway. Whatever the king's motive,genocide against the Jewish population became the law of the vast PersianEmpire, numbering 127 provinces that ranged from India to Ethiopia.

At a lavish dinner party hosted by Esther and attended by courtnotables, including Haman, the queen tells her husband about the murderousimplications of the prime minister's demonic plot. Seemingly shocked at thenews, the king reverses himself and rescinds the deadly decree.

Did Ahasuerus, a cipher in the book of Esther, act solely out of lovefor his Jewish wife or was he perhaps ashamed of the bloody policy he hadearlier approved? Who knows? But the Jews of Persia were saved from Hamanand his henchmen.

In an intriguing bit of court politics and role reversal, the kingorders Haman hanged on the same gallows that were intended for Mordecai, andthe spared Jewish leader is chosen the new Persian prime minister. All thesedizzying events are recounted in a brilliant biblical short story of only 10brief chapters.

Ever since, Jews have joyously celebrated their ancient deliverance fromdeath. Purim -- the Hebrew word for the dice Haman tossed to determine thedate for the mass murders -- centers on the reading of the book of Estheralong with costumes, carnivals, satirical plays and hearty partying.

The Purim tale is modern in another way. Unlike every other biblicaltext, the book of Esther does not once mention God. The successful ending tothe story is achieved only through human effort, although there is thecryptic verse that "deliverance of the Jews will come from a differentplace." In Esther the nearly victimized people are called "Jews" and not"Hebrews" or "children of Israel," the ancient biblical names.

Although Esther's author did not, of course, know the term"anti-Semitism," the book is a classic example of that virulent socialpathology. Had not Esther and Mordecai intervened, ancient Persia would havebeen the scene of mass murder with an entire people put to death solelybecause of their religious identification.

This year the Purim story takes on special poignancy.

For perhaps the first time since the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, rawanti-Semitism has re-emerged in Europe, the Middle East and other parts ofthe world. Modern-style Hamans spew forth harsh anti-Jewish rhetoric that istoxic in nature. Increasingly, synagogues, cemeteries, community centers andother Jewish institutions are burned or damaged.v In France, Jews, including rabbis, are subject to physical assault. Arecently published book, "Les Territoires Perdus de la Republique," is adepressing account of the anti-Semitism, racism and sexism now extant withinmany French schools.

In one Paris school last year, two Jewish students, both young girls,were verbally attacked by 15 of their classmates who shouted anti-Jewishobscenities at the bewildered pair. The attacks grew more abusive and thefrightened girls were ordered to kneel and "apologize" and seek"forgiveness" for being Jewish. To their credit, the girls refused to behumiliated. School authorities suspended two of the young anti-Semites, butthe two Jewish students transferred to another Paris school.

Nor is this an isolated incident. Some French schoolteachers report thatsometimes Jewish students, just 7 or 8 years old, are greeted by theirclassmates with such words as "Jew dog!" and "We're going to burn you andIsrael!" Incredibly, some students repeat the "Big Lie" -- that theHolocaust never happened and is an invention designed to garner support forthe state of Israel.

Such lies are especially odious because they are being recited by thevery young in a nation where Jews were systematically rounded up forexecution just 60 years ago.

But Purim, a holiday beloved by Jews for over 2,000 years, offers agreat message: Despite the many Hamans in history, "deliverance" willsomehow still come.