A high-ranking Persian official vilifies the Jewish people and seeks to destroy them. Old news, you might say, and understandably so. Who hasn't heard about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's calling the Holocaust "a mythical claim" and asserting that "the uniform shout of the Iranian nation is forever 'Death to Israel!'" However, reflecting the adage that history repeats itself, this is not just "old news," it's really old news. For the genocidal objective of the present day Persian leader is eerily similar to a predecessor who lived more than 2,300 years ago.
On the evening of Feb. 23, Jews around the world will usher in the holiday of Purim, the story of which is told in the biblical book of Esther. The plot outline: Jews, exiled from their land for nearly 70 years, find a fairly comfortable living in Persia, which is ruled by a self-aggrandizing despot. However, one of the king's ministers, named Haman, has an irrational hatred toward Jews, and convinces the king that they are enemies of the regime. A plan is drawn up to attack them, and lots are cast to determine the date of the future genocide. (The Hebrew word for "lots" is purim, from which the holiday gets its name.)
However, sub-plots eventually foil the villain. The Jewish hero, Mordecai, just happens to overhear a plot to assassinate the king, and reports it to the proper officials. The king just happens to read the record of this loyal action during a certain sleepless night, and that very morning orders Haman to honor Mordecai for his patriotism. Haman is not pleased with this duty, as he had expected to be the king's honoree. It also happens that the new queen, Esther, chosen as the king's favorite from his harem at the beginning of the story, is Jewish (and Mordecai's niece). When she learns of the plot against the Jews, she daringly pleads for her people to the king and accuses Haman of wickedness in the king's presence -- an act which could cost her life. The king storms out of the room, apparently angry but perhaps still uncertain what action to take. Haman turns to the queen to beg for his life, and falls onto her lap. The king, reentering at just that moment, flies into a fury at Haman's presumptuousness and immediately orders his execution -- on the very gallows Haman had built for Mordecai. While there still is a battle to be fought on the destined day, Mordecai and Esther have won the king's favor and all will be well for the Jews.
Today, Jews fast on the day before Purim and, in the evening, celebrate with a reading of the story from a scroll (megillah). The next day, they donate to charity, give gifts of food to their neighbors, and finish with a festive meal. Many have the custom of wearing costumes, putting on plays that parody the villains and exalt the heroes, and generally creating a comic atmosphere. While more moderate than Carnival or Mardi Gras, the holiday partakes of some of that spirit.
In Jewish tradition, though, there is a meaning beyond the celebration of victory or comedy for its own sake. Purim is remarkable in two ways: One is that the outcome seems to depend on chance events: Esther being a secret Jew in the palace, Mordecai learning of the plot against the king, the king reading the records of Mordecai's loyalty at just the right moment. The other peculiar feature is that God's name does not appear even once in the entire Megillah. The people fast and pray, so God's existence is implied, but there is no Divine actor on stage.
These two are connected by a third feature. The outcome also hangs on the fearless action of the hero and heroine, stepping into the breach at the moment of crisis. When they take action, then hidden forces seem to assist: The king wakes at the right moment to set in motion the elevation of Mordecai; the king reenters the room in time to see Haman with Esther. God, it seems, is especially interested in precise timing, which to our eyes appears as chance.
Haman became, in Jewish tradition, the archetype of human evil. His name is often recalled when anti-Semites are powerful. Yet, unlike other manifestations of evil such as Satan or the "evil inclination," Haman is not an object of fear or challenge, but of parody -- he is ritually ridiculed. Jews in this way paradoxically affirm a great faith which is applicable to all, no matter what one's religion: When humans take the risk to act with virtue and courage, invisible forces conspire on the side of good. Those who use power to do evil will fall, tripped up by their own tortuous machinations.
The lesson: Cast your lot with goodness, no matter how weak or unlikely it may seem. You will be surprised.