The biblical book of Esther, which will be read in synagogues throughout the world on Monday evening, March 17, is the narrative for the annual Jewish holiday of Purim.
Although a biblical text, Esther is a thoroughly modern story.
There is an intermarriage between Ahasuerus, the addled king of ancient Persia (today's Iran), and Esther, a Jewish woman, who becomes the queen by winning a beauty contest. Esther and her relative, Mordecai, outwit Haman, Ahasuerus' prime minister, who sought the mass murder of the Jewish people in Persia.
At first, the weak king approved Haman's genocidal plans. Perhaps Ahasuerus didn't actually read the text of the evil decree or perhaps he did understand the ugly words but signed off anyway. Whatever the king's motive, genocide against the Jewish population became the law of the vast Persian Empire, numbering 127 provinces that ranged from India to Ethiopia.
At a lavish dinner party hosted by Esther and attended by court notables, including Haman, the queen tells her husband about the murderous implications of the prime minister's demonic plot. Seemingly shocked at the news, the king reverses himself and rescinds the deadly decree.
Did Ahasuerus, a cipher in the book of Esther, act solely out of love for his Jewish wife or was he perhaps ashamed of the bloody policy he had earlier approved? Who knows? But the Jews of Persia were saved from Haman and his henchmen.
In an intriguing bit of court politics and role reversal, the king orders Haman hanged on the same gallows that were intended for Mordecai, and the spared Jewish leader is chosen the new Persian prime minister. All these dizzying events are recounted in a brilliant biblical short story of only 10 brief chapters.
Ever since, Jews have joyously celebrated their ancient deliverance from death. Purim -- the Hebrew word for the dice Haman tossed to determine the date for the mass murders -- centers on the reading of the book of Esther along with costumes, carnivals, satirical plays and hearty partying.
The Purim tale is modern in another way. Unlike every other biblical text, the book of Esther does not once mention God. The successful ending to the story is achieved only through human effort, although there is the cryptic verse that "deliverance of the Jews will come from a different place." 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 social pathology. Had not Esther and Mordecai intervened, ancient Persia would have been the scene of mass murder with an entire people put to death solely because 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, raw anti-Semitism has re-emerged in Europe, the Middle East and other parts of the world. Modern-style Hamans spew forth harsh anti-Jewish rhetoric that is toxic in nature. Increasingly, synagogues, cemeteries, community centers and other Jewish institutions are burned or damaged.v In France, Jews, including rabbis, are subject to physical assault. A recently published book, "Les Territoires Perdus de la Republique," is a depressing account of the anti-Semitism, racism and sexism now extant within many 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-Jewish obscenities at the bewildered pair. The attacks grew more abusive and the frightened girls were ordered to kneel and "apologize" and seek "forgiveness" for being Jewish. To their credit, the girls refused to be humiliated. School authorities suspended two of the young anti-Semites, but the two Jewish students transferred to another Paris school.
Nor is this an isolated incident. Some French schoolteachers report that sometimes Jewish students, just 7 or 8 years old, are greeted by their classmates with such words as "Jew dog!" and "We're going to burn you and Israel!" Incredibly, some students repeat the "Big Lie" -- that the Holocaust never happened and is an invention designed to garner support for the state of Israel.
Such lies are especially odious because they are being recited by the very young in a nation where Jews were systematically rounded up for execution just 60 years ago.
But Purim, a holiday beloved by Jews for over 2,000 years, offers a great message: Despite the many Hamans in history, "deliverance" will somehow still come.