Never Despair: The Eternal Lesson of Purim and The Fast of Esther

BY RABBI DORON PEREZ

Despair.

If I had to pick one word which to my mind is the polar opposite of everything Judaism stands for, it would be despair. It is this very same sentiment of despair and hopelessness that the Fast of Esther and festival of Purim totally reject.

There is no such thing as despair in the Jewish worldview. Darkness and difficulty, pain and suffering, exile and anguish, struggle and challenge – unfortunately, yes. But dejection and despair? Never.

D-Day

The 13th of Adar – the most Diabolical and Dangerous Day of Destruction in Jewish history.

If ever there was a time that seemed completely hopeless, it was Haman’s global plan for the genocide of the entire Jewish race. No day in all of Jewish history represents utter despair more than the 13th of Adar in the 12th year of King Achashverosh’s rule. No day was more desperate and dangerous for all Jews than this day. Yet somehow, no day had the diametrically opposite outcome of any reasonable or rational assessment – the greatest threat ever of Jewish annihilation was transformed into the most astounding and unlikely salvation.

Indeed, never before or since has any enemy of Israel attempted with such diabolical precision to kill, Heaven forbid, every single Jew in the world at the same time – beginning and ending on one day.

Two factors make Haman’s plan even more outlandish. First, the Jews were dispersed among all 127 countries of King Achashverosh’s empire. The plan to destroy them involved meticulous planning – gathering of intelligence, precise execution and implementation. Second, this event took place over 2,500 years ago at a time predating the technological advancements of our modern era when the entire world is one global village.

The depth and depravity of Haman the Amalekite’s bombastic and barbaric hatred and willpower resulted in the most diabolical plan of potential Jewish annihilation ever conceived. Not a ‘Final Solution’ secretly planned in the not-so-well-known city of Wannsee to be executed over the course of years, but one planned publicly in the Persian capital of Shushan, decreed in every single spoken language throughout the entire empire, and to be implemented in one day.

The verses couldn’t be clearer: “Haman sought to destroy all the Jews that were throughout the whole kingdom of Achashverosh… In the first month, that is, the month Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Achashverosh they cast pur, that is, the lot, before Haman from day to day, and from month to month, to the twelfth month, that is, the month Adar… And the king took his ring from his hand, and gave it unto Haman the son of Hamdata the Agagite, the Jews’ enemy. Then were the king’s scribes called on the thirteenth day of the first month, and there was written according to all that Haman had commanded unto the king’s satraps, and to the governors that were over every province, and to the rulers of every people of every province according to the writing thereof, and to every people after their language; in the name of King Achashverosh was it written, and sealed with the king’s ring. And the letters were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces, to destroy, to kill, and to cause to perish, all Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day, upon the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month Adar, and to take the spoil of them for a prey“ (Esther 3:6–13).

“VeNahafoch Hu” – The Remarkable Reversal

And then, in an unlikely and remarkable change of fortune, every element of this meticulously planned “Final Solution” was totally turned on its head, all on that very same day, the 13th of Adar. Haman unexpectedly fell out of favor with the king, and Mordechai and Esther convinced the king to send out an additional decree allowing the Jews to defend themselves against all who wished to destroy them. This decree was sent out in exactly the same way and designated the 13th of Adar as a day of defense and battle against the murderous Jew-haters across the empire. Instead of global Jewish annihilation, the Jews utterly defeated their enemies throughout the empire, killing 800 terrorists in Shushan, including Haman and his ten bloodthirsty sons, as well as 75,000 terrorists and accomplices throughout the empire.

As stated in the megillah: “Now in the twelfth month, that is, the month Adar, on the thirteenth day, when the king’s commandment and his decree drew near to be put in execution, on the day that the enemies of the Jews hoped to have power over them, it was turned to the contrary, and the Jews had rule over them that hated them. The Jews gathered themselves together in their cities throughout all the provinces of King Achashverosh, to lay hands on those who sought their hurt: and no man could withstand them; for the fear of them fell upon all people… 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” (Esther 9:1–5).1

The 13th of Adar was converted from a day of destruction to the great day of salvation. Since the battles were completed on the 14th of Adar in all cities and on the 15th of Adar in Shushan alone, Purim and Shushan Purim were instituted on these two days for future generations as eternal days of celebration and thanks for the miracle. 

The pivotal day in the story is, without a doubt, the 13th of Adar itself. This is the day of the most remarkable reversal, the designated time of ultimate destruction which was transformed into the greatest day of deliverance and redemption in Jewish history. This is the day of “וְנַהֲפוֹךְ הוּא,” when everything turned around. This remarkable day lives on in Jewish consciousness for posterity as the Fast of Esther.

Ta’anit Esther

Why do we fast on this day? What is the purpose of this particular fast? After all, this is the Jewish people’s only annual fast of the prophets which is unrelated to the destruction of the Temples.2 Additionally, the fast is not mandated anywhere in the megillah nor in the Talmud, but was only established in post-Talmudic times during the era of the Geonim.

Ta’anit Esther also has the unusual distinction of being the only fast which, when it falls on a Shabbat, is observed earlier. All other fasts which commemorate the destruction are always deferred to a later date. 

Why indeed do we fast on this day and what is the nature of its commemoration?

The earliest source dealing with the Fast of Esther is that of Rabbi Achai Gaon who highlights a fascinating point.3 He opines that the purpose of this fast is to recall the fast that took place on this very day of the battle of the Jewish people against their enemies. The megillah refers to this day as “a time of gathering” (Esther 8:11), so much so that the Talmud refers to this day as a “זְמַן קְהִילָה לָכֹּל, a time of gathering for all,” when the Jews gathered together for fasting, supplication and prayer.4 Rav Achai maintains that all the Jews fasted and prayed together for the defeat of their enemies on that day. The Fast of Esther is therefore a remembrance of that miraculous day when the Jews gathered as one to fast and pray, while those who could, fought for their lives.5 In short, the fast is an eternal reminder of our spiritual connection to Hashem and how the power of relentless advocacy and prayer can transform seemingly impossible and desperate situations.

The Fast of Esther is an everlasting testament to the remarkable power of reversal. A day destined for imminent annihilation can become the very day of immediate redemption. It is for this reason, Rabbi Achai Gaon says, that only this fast is observed earlier. This fast recalls miraculous redemption which we wish to hasten, whereas the others commemorate tragic destruction which we wish to defer. The fast recounts the profound power of activism and prayer to remake our reality, while the festival of Purim celebrates the triumph of hope over despair and salvation over dejection.

May our current war with Hamas, especially as we celebrate the month of Adar, elicit a miraculous turnaround leading to the release of all of our hostages and the destruction of our Haman-like enemy. 

The message of the three days of the Fast of Esther, Purim and Shushan Purim is clear – in G-d’s world, there is never room for despair, only for hope!

 

1 The verses describing the dispatching of the second decree are almost identical to the first one. The verses that follow state that 500 enemies were killed in Shushan on the 13th of Adar, an additional 300 the next day, and a total of 75,000 across the empire.

2 The other four fasts all revolve around the destruction of the Temple. The 10th of Tevet commemorates the beginning of the Babylonian siege, the 17th of Tammuz commemorates the breaching of the city walls, the 9th of Av commemorates the destruction of the Temple and the Fast of Gedaliah commemorates the murder of the last Governor of Judah, facilitating the final exile of Israel’s remaining leadership.

3 Sheiltot of Rav Achai Gaon, 67.

4 Megillah 2a.

5 This is also the opinion of Rabbeinu Tam (cited in the Rosh, Megillah 1:1), in the Tur (O. Ch. 666) and the Mishnah Berurah, and is the majority opinion. The Shibolei HaLeket and Orchot Chaim believe that the Fast of Esther recalls Esther and the people’s three-day fast before approaching Achashverosh (Esther 4:16), but most opinions reject this view in favor of the former.

 

Rabbi Doron Perez is the Executive Chairman of World Mizrachi. 

© 2024 World Mizrachi

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