Today is the second day at of the Jewish festival of Purim. Historians debate whether the events described in the book of Esther, on which the Purim festival is based are historically accurate, but in any case, the story is interesting and teaches some useful lessons.

According to the Book of Esther, during the reign of King Ahasuerus in Babylon, the king decided to pick his wife by holding a beauty contest. The winner and new queen was a beautiful young woman named Esther. She was Jewish, but the king did not know it.

A wicked counselor named Haman convinced the king to order the destruction of all the Jews. Messengers were dispatched throughout the kingdom announcing the extermination of the Jews to take place several months later. Haman had picked the most auspicious date by casting lots.

Esther's wise uncle Mordecai urged her to petition the king, but Esther was afraid that she too might be killed. Mordecai replied that Esther, despite her privileged position, would not escape what would befall the rest of the Jews. Moreover, it might be that Esther had been elevated to the queenship for this very moment.

So Esther invited the king and Haman to a banquet, a banquet which Haman thought was in his honor. At the banquet, Queen Esther told the king how Haman was plotting against Mordecai the Jew, who had earlier saved the king from an assassination attempt. She then accused Haman to trying to kill her, for, Esther confessed, she was a Jew.

The enraged king ordered Haman to be hanged—-ironically, on the gallows that Haman had been building for Mordecai.

According to Babylonian law, a king's decree could not be rescinded. So the king sent forth throughout Babylon a second decree, allowing the Jews "in every city to gather themselves together, and to stand for their life, to destroy, to slay, and to cause to perish, all the power of the people and the province that would attack them." The language precisely matched the previous decree which had ordered the destruction of the Jews.

On the day that the destruction of the Jews was scheduled to begin, the people who hated the Jews attacked. The Jews fought back, assisted by provincial governments which sought Mordecai's favor. "Thus the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, and slaughter, and destruction, and did what they would unto those that hated them."

Forever after, Jews have celebrated the Feast of Purim ("lots"). It is a joyous springtime festival, full of children's games.

Esther is the only book of the Bible in which God is not mentioned. Yet it is easy enough to see who is doing God's work: wise Mordecai, brave Esther, and the fighting Jews throughout Babylon.

On Purim, Jews are supposed to drink until they can no longer distinguish "Blessed be Mordecai" from "Cursed be Haman." Some people say that this means a person should drink until he can no longer do the mathematical calculations with the Hebrew letters showing that Mordecai and Haman each add up to the same value, namely 520. (All Hebrew letters have a numeric value.)

Other people say that because the blessing of Mordecai and the cursing of Haman both manifested God's goodness, a person should drink until he realizes the fundamental similarity of God's superficially diverse good works.

Whether or not there was a historical Queen Esther, history shows that Esther and Haman are archtypes who will always be with us. When the Nazi war criminal Julius Streicher was being dragged to the gallows in his underwear, he screamed "Purim Feast, 1946." (Abram L. Sachar, The Redemption of the Unwanted: From the Liberation of the Death Camps to the Founding of Israel (N.Y. St. Martin's Pr., 1983), p. 123.) Streicher was publisher of the ultra-anti-Semitic weekly newspaper Der Stuermer. He was convicted of crimes against humanity for inciting the murder of Jews. Even with the context of Nazi politics, Streicher was an extremist in his early, frequent, and insistent demands for Jewish extermination. As an inciter of genocide, Streicher did have much in common with Haman.

Many Jewish families and communities celebrate an additional Purim based on their own miraculous deliverances. For example, according to the 1991 book Purim: Its Observance and Significance (Mesorah Pubs.), the Jews of Algiers celebrate an additional Purim to commemorate the Turkish defeat of a 1775 Spanish invasion (retaliation for Algerian raids on the Spanish coast), which saved the Jewish quarter from almost certain destruction by the Spaniards.