COMMENTARY: Celebrating the enigmatic feast of Purim

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Rabbi Rudin is the national interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee.)

UNDATED _ On Saturday night, March 22nd, the biblical book of Esther will be read in synagogues as Jews celebrate Purim, the most joyous holiday of the year, but also the most enigmatic.

The story behind Purim, the Hebrew word for dice or lots, is chillingly familiar and has many contemporary overtones. Prime Minster Haman, an anti-Semitic villain in ancient Persia, cunningly manipulates his weak sovereign, King Ahasuerus, into issuing a royal edict that orders the mass murder of all Jews in the realm. Haman arrogantly rolls the dice to determine the precise date for the massacre of the Jews, the"final solution"to his Jewish problem.

Fortunately, Haman is thwarted in his genocidal plans by the astute efforts of Mordecai, a Persian Jew, and his relative, Esther, Ahasuerus' Jewish queen, who bravely confronts Haman and convinces her royal husband to spare her people from annihilation.

Surprisingly, God's name does not appear in the book of Esther and Haman's intended victims are not described as"Hebrews"or"Israelites,"the usual Bible appellations. Instead, they are simply called"Jews."A thoroughly modern book.

Of course, the book of Esther has a happy ending: The wicked prime minister is himself hanged on the very gallows intended for Mordecai and his people, and Jews are commanded each year to joyously celebrate their collective deliverance from the gallows, a biblical equivalent of the 20th-century gas chamber.

As a longtime Purim reveler, I have always been fascinated by the puzzling character of King Ahasuerus. The other three leading figures in the Purim story are easy to psych out: Haman is radical evil; Mordecai is shrewd political leadership; and Esther represents naive sweetness. She ultimately does one virtuous act in life; she saves her people. Not too many subtleties with that trio.

But the king is different. Was Ahasuerus merely silly-putty in the wily hands of Haman? Was the king an amoral ineffectual ruler with no will of his own? Or did he, in fact, agree with the anti-Jewish policies of his prime minister and happily delegate the dirty work of mass murder to a ruthless underling?

And why did Ahasuerus suddenly abandon Haman's genocidal plan upon hearing the pleas of his beautiful Jewish wife, Queen Esther? Was it a case of sex and passion deciding national policy? Or, incredibly, was the king unaware of the ghastly implications of his imperial order to kill the Jews of Persia?

As former U.S. Senator Howard Baker might have asked back then:"What did the king know? And when did he know it?"Although Baker uttered those questions at the 1973 Watergate hearings, it is a question that has echoed throughout history.

In Imperial Russia during the 19th century, the Jews of that country were victims of numerous bloody physical attacks. Those pogroms were frequently blamed upon intoxicated peasants or overzealous local police officers. Sometimes, virulent anti-Jewish Good Friday sermons delivered by clergy were cited as causes for the anti-Jewish assaults.

Often, the czar, Russia's"Little Father,"was absolved from blame for the deadly pogroms. Jews were solemnly told by state authorities the attacks were"spontaneous"and not part of official government policy. And the bewildered and frightened people were constantly reassured that"if only the czar knew"of the pogroms, they would cease. "If only the czar knew ..."Nonsense. The truth is the czar always knew about the pogroms. And, in fact, they were part of a government effort to destroy the Russian Jewish community.

The same wretched lie was employed in November 1938 in Nazi Germany and Austria during the infamous Kristallnacht pogrom. The world was told the murder of Jews and the synagogue burnings were"unplanned"excesses carried out by undisciplined gangs.

If only the fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, had known, then the deaths and fire bombings would never have happened. Total nonsense. Not only did the fuhrer know, but he and his gangster cabal organized and carried out Kristallnacht.

Of course, Ahasuerus knew exactly what Haman was planning, and the king knew precisely what his royal edict meant. The truth is that kings, czars, fuhrers _ every political leader _ always know such things, and people, especially the victims, deceive themselves by believing otherwise.

The miracle of Purim is that a ruler actually changed his mind (forget his motives!) and spared the Jews from mass murder. The saddest aspect of the holiday is it only happened once.

A Jewish adage says it all:"So many Hamans in history, but only one Purim!" MJP END RUDIN