The Fast of Esther
March 24, 2005
Today, Thursday, March 24, 2005, is observed as the Fast of Esther. Jews all over the world will fast and pray in commemoration of the 3 days of fast and prayer by the Jews of ancient Persia that was organized at Esther's initiative. Queen Esther called for this fast as preparation for her unauthorized appearance before King Ahasuerus, in an effort to plead that he call off the wicked Haman's plot to annihilate the Jews.
Fasting has a unique role in Jewish tradition and observance. Some sources explain that since when one fasts some of the body's reserves are used up, it is likened by G-d as if the individual brought an offering upon the altar in the Holy Temple. But as is the case with all of the Torah's commandments, the act of fasting must be accompanied by proper thoughts and intention. Indeed, how one fasts, how to conduct the fast properly, is an art unto itself. The goal of the fast is not to suffer physically or inflict the body, but to enable ourselves to reach a higher level of consciousness, one that is more conducive to allowing us to get in touch with our feelings and to "come clean" before our Creator with sincere thoughts of repentance. To be less concerned about our immediate physical needs and gratification, and more focused on our eternal needs, and the needs of others around us. For everybody knows that it's simply much harder to remember G-d with a full stomach. When we're satiated, we feel that all's right with the world, and we are in charge. But when we fast and really begin to allow ourselves to feel how much we need G-d, we begin to realize that we're not in charge at all.
In this light, we can understand that fasting itself can be a tikkun, a rectification - or "fixing" - of the sins that are sometimes committed when eating. Proper intentions during a fast can hopefully undo some of the spiritual damage associated with improper eating, such as feelings of haughtiness and conceit, forgetting about G-d, and selfishness.
While this concept is true of all fast days, we can see how it applies even moreso to the Fast of Esther. For the megillah, the scroll of Esther, begins with a tour de force of sins associated with eating: the lavish pagan banquet that was held by King Ahasuerus. Our sages teach that Ahasuerus held this feast to celebrate the fact that the Holy Temple in Jerusalem had not yet been rebuilt. Although his predecessor King Cyrus had given the Jews permission to commence the rebuilding, it seemed likely that it would not happen after all. Ahasuerus invited all the Jews of his provinces to attend this banquet, which was designed to degrade and humiliate them and make certain that they would never attempt to rebuild the Temple again. All these "court Jews" were delighted to receive an invitation from their Gentile king - thus proving how accepted and assimilated, what an accepted part of the community they were. At the banquet, in their presence, King Ahasuerus made a mockery of everything that the Jews held to be holy. Food was served and eaten from the sacred vessels of the Holy Temple that were plundered from Jerusalem at the time of the destruction of the Holy Temple. "And they gave them drink in vessels of gold, and the vessels were diverse one from the other." (Esther 1:7). During the feast, the king instructed that these vessels should be brought forth from his treasure house for all to see, while he himself donned the holy garments of the High Priest.
The Talmud explains that the decree of destruction was made against the Jews because they participated in a banquet that was designed to commemorate the destruction of the Holy Temple (Megillah 12:A). Now you who are reading this may wonder: How is possible that the Jews stood for this? Why did they gladly attend a party that was designed to degrade and humiliate not only them, but their spiritual aspirations... even their G-d Himself?
It is not so simple as all that. The sages of Israel shed light on this paradox by explaining that "the Jews cried when they saw the vessels of the Holy Temple being degraded at the banquet - but they participated anyway." The Midrash states that every day during the banquet, King Ahasuerus brought forth another treasure trove of vessels, different then the day before. When the Jews saw these holy vessels being put to shame, they couldn't bring themselves to enjoy the party... so Ahasuerus came up with an idea that was acceptable to them: He made a separate room just for them, allowing them to continue participating in and enjoying the party... which they did, knowing full well that their G-d was being mocked across the hall (Yalkut Shimoni).
We can assume that the modern Jewish leadership of the time was in a frenzy over how to react. All the Persian and Babylonian Jewish groups must have geared up into subcommittees, president's conferences, anti-defamation leagues and appeals. They must have held symposiums, fact-finding missions, and press conferences. Yet ultimately they came to the conclusion that the best thing for the Jewish people would be to continue being degraded and subjugated. This way, they reasoned, the world will love us.
And what of the real, true Jewish leadership of the time? Where were they? Didn't anyone speak up with authority, in the name of the Torah? Our sages address this issue as well, telling us that "the great leaders of Israel were there - and they bolted." These leaders were understandably shocked and outraged when they saw that G-d's name was desecrated at the party. But rather than deal constructively with the situation, rather then demonstrate leadership by offering an alternative, by instructing the people as to how they must behave, by making a stand for G-d - instead, they simply imploded in ineptitude and weakness, and left the scene. As if by not seeing the scene, they could somehow convince themselves that it wasn't happening.
All except for one Jew -Ê a member of the Sanhedrin named Mordechai. He is the only one that refused to bow down to Haman, and the only Jew who did not attend Ahaseurus's feast. What singled him out? What made Mordechai so special? From where did he derive his great strength and resolve?
"There was a Jewish man in Shushan the capital whose name was Mordechai son of Yair son of Himei son of Kish, a Benjamite... " (Esther 2:5). The Hebrew word for "Benjamite" is y'mini. Our sages discuss this verse and ask, why is it necessary for the verse to mention that Mordechai is descended from the tribe of Benjamin? By including his paternal lineage, we already know that he is a member of the tribe of Benjamin!
The answer is that there is a connection between the use of this word y'mini in this verse, and the appearance of the same word in another verse, this one from the book of Psalms: "If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand (y'mini) forget its skill... " (Psalms 137:5).
Mordechai the Jew did not forget Jerusalem. He did not forget the Holy Temple, and he would not tolerate a desecration of the honor of G-d. Thus the Torah itself testifies to his character by identifying him as y'mini, one who had not forgotten Jerusalem. One who remembered who he was, and what he stood for, and what he was called to do, no matter the price.
This year, the Fast of Esther and the joyous holiday of Purim - a time of Divine turnabout and miraculous deliverance - are being observed against the backdrop of the saga of the Land of Israel, and Ariel Sharon's vile decree of expulsion that hangs over the heads of thousands of Jews from Gush Katif and northern Samaria. True, it's been pointed out, Ariel Sharon and George Bush are not exactly Haman, and the decree is not one of annihilation, so let's not exaggerate, some people say.
Well. Let's not exaggerate, and at the same time, let us be honest and brave enough to admit that there are similarities as well. The Sharon government, by its treachery and treason against the Land of Israel - not it's to give away - through anti-religious legislation, though demonization of religious Jews by its controlled media, has declared war against the Torah and the G-d of Israel. Bolting from the scene, hiding from the facts, pretending it's for the best, shying away from confrontation, will not change anything.
The deafening, pitiful position of many American Jewish groups regarding the disengagement plan is representative of the spiritual bankruptcy which plagues us today. While they sit and revel at Ahasuerus' party, trying to fit in and be loved by all, G-d's house is in flames all over again, His Name is trodden underfoot, and His people are threatened with exile. Yet remarkably, while claiming to speak in the name of the Torah, even some important Orthodox groups have "no position" on the dismantling of Jewish communities and the forced expulsion of Jewish families.
The scroll of Esther is one of the most remarkable books in the Bible. Never once mentioning the name of G-d, His presence is always felt behind the scenes, just as we must seek Him out for our deliverance in our own lives as well. The book consists of 167 verses. Exactly half way through, we find the pivotal verse, upon which the revelation of the Divine presence in our lives hinges: Chapter 5, verse 4. Esther risks it all, her very life, and takes an initiative by inviting the king and Haman to her feast, at which she will unveil Haman's evil intentions.
G-d only acts for us, when we take action for Him. Like Nachshon at the Red Sea, Esther made a move for G-d and threw caution to the wind. She understood that she would have to take a stand for her people, and was ready to pay the price. She did not wait, hoping that things would get better on their own.
This year, perhaps for the first time on this scale, the Jewish people will not be the only ones fasting today. In consultation with the people of Gush Katif and a number of organizations, a call of spiritual identification has been issued by many American Christians and well-wishers of Israel to fast as well, joining hands to pray for Israel. We applaud this show of solidarity, and urge you to join in this day of fasting and prayer. Let it also be a day of action: a campaign is being launched to bombard the White House with protest calls against Disengagement today, March 24th.
Let American Jews and Christians bombard the White House with phone calls and e-mails.Ê Make your message short and clear: President Bush - Honor G-d's covenant with His people. Stop Disengagement.
On Thursday March 24, 2005, phone the White House at 202-456-1111
On Thursday March 24, 2005, fax the White House at 202-456-2461
On Thursday March 24, 2005 send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
American public opinion can exert a great influence on the Israeli government.
May we all experience the deliverance of Purim and the incomparable joy that comes from knowing we have done the right thing by standing up for G-d.
With blessings of Purim joy,
Rabbi Chaim Richman
PO Box 31876 Jerusalem, Israel 97500
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