Ever since my first child was born, Purim has fascinated me. While the holy days and chagim provide for family interaction, I can think of no other holiday that causes us to interact more with our children than Purim.

After all, who among us has not dressed our daughters as Esther and our sons as Mordechai? Sure, as they get older their tastes supersede ours and Esther’s gown and scepter give way to Wonder Woman while Mordechai’s hat and beard morph into Superman’s cape. On what other holiday do we allow, and join in, the noise accompanying the reading of Haman’s name in the megillah? Who has not beamed with pride as an oldest child, not quite four months old, is oohed and aahed at in her first costume while held in her beaming father’s arms?

Yet for all the fun and gaiety, there is something surreal about the chag. Its story of looming tragedy and redemption of the Jewish people more than 2,500 years ago is retold each year as if it is being heard for the first time. And a troubling story it is.

“And it came to pass in the days of Achashveirosh” the megillah begins. It took one of my daughters to explain that our sages teach that whenever a story begins with “and it came to pass” it means that trouble was ahead – but that all would turn out well in the end. Indeed, the stubbornness of one Jew, Mordechai, in refusing to bow before a Jew-hater, Haman, leads to a decree that all the Jews would be killed in several months’ time. Instead of that destruction, however, Esther is able to turn the tables on Haman, and it is his family, and his followers, who are destroyed. So, if we follow our sages and know from the beginning that all would turn out well, why the annual sense of excitement as we unroll the megillah?

To me, the answer lies in the fact that the Purim story is timeless. It described the lives of the Jewish Diaspora more than 2,500 years ago and continues to define the problems that plague the world today. To me, the villains of the story are still the same in a figurative and literal sense.

Today, Haman has been replaced by a threat to the Jewish people in a rise in anti-Semitism (I prefer the less fancy term “Jew-hatred”) and to the world in the threat of nuclear weapons being introduced into the Middle East by the Iranians, the descendants of Achashveirosh.

For the past twenty-five years, an Islamic fundamentalist government intent on spreading Islam throughout the world has ruled old Shushan. Its first target was the U.S. embassy in Tehran, overrun in November 1979 by “students” who took dozens of Americans as hostage. That act paralyzed President Jimmy Carter and his confused response led to his defeat in 1980 by Ronald Reagan.

The apparent weakness of America led to bold moves by the Iranians. After all, if the “great Satan” was unable to free its own citizens, the rest of the world could be viewed as easy pickings. Thus began Iran’s role as an exporter of terror, first by arranging for the execution of expatriates, then by waging a surrogate war against Israel through Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. America and France were Iranian targets through surrogates acting in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.

While sanctioned to the gills by the U.S., Iran was able to buy its way into Europe, and European governments and businesses thumbed their noses at American sanctions as they lined up at the trough of Iranian business. Although the election of Mohammad Khatami – reputed to be a moderate – to the Iranian presidency brought hope for a change in Iran-U.S. relations, Khatami has been unwilling or unable to reduce the power of the mullahs. As a result, he is nearly powerless. While America reached out to Tehran by removing import restrictions on pistachio nuts, carpets and caviar during the Clinton administration, every effort to speak has been effectively rebuffed by the Iranian government.

Today, 2,500 years after the first Purim, it is not only Israel that stands in danger as Iran moves toward building an atomic weapon. Indeed, even the European nations are aware that the continent is in easy reach of missiles now in the possession of the Iranian military, and longer range missiles are only a matter of time away from development. Diplomatic steps to get Iran out of the nuclear weapons business are moving at a frenetic pace, but results are far from guaranteed.

The Jewish world is a lot different from what it was in the time of Esther and Mordechai. Unlike Esther, Israel does not have to wait for the king to let it beg for its people’s lives and allow it to fight back. Israel’s preemptive strike against Iraq’s nascent nuclear plants more than 20 years ago is now recognized as having been a good thing for the world. And the U.S. has alluded to that attack more than once in recent months as the Bush administration pressured Iran to come to the negotiating table.

Will Iranian designs on the world be contained? We never know what the Almighty has in store for us, and the meanings of His actions are often hidden until years – and generations – have passed. But we find in the consistency of our tradition that Megillat Esther tells us, in one short opening phrase, that though the road will be bumpy, all will be well in the end.

The proof will be there on Purim night in the laughing faces of our grandchildren – little Queen Esthers and Mordechais, as they hold their first grogger and drown out the name of Haman.

Chag sameach.


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