For 2017, the Fast of Esther falls on March 9th. We fast because, in the Jewish story of Purim, Queen Esther fasted before risking her life for her people.
Queen Esther lived in what is now Iran some 2,373 years ago (according to the timeline created in “Book of Esther”, in the Commentary Collection called, MeAm Loez; this Book of Esther commentary was written by Rabbi Raphael Chiya Pontremoli (1825-1885), translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (1934–1983), 1978, p xv). We name this day after Esther partly because she turned to HaShem—and then saved the Jewish people.
According to MeAm Loez, the Purim story actually began decades before Esther was born, some 17 years before the First Jewish Temple was destroyed 2,439 years ago (ibid, xii). The Purim story began then because at that time, the prophet Jeremiah did two things. First, he predicted the Temple would be destroyed; and second, he predicted the future return of the Jews to Israel (Jeremiah 25). He said that return would occur “after seventy years”.
However, no one knew when the count of those seventy years should begin. Did the count begin when Jeremiah first made his prophecy, or did it begin the year the Temple was destroyed 17 years later (ibid, xii)? Or, did it begin at some other date?
Jews were concerned about this prophecy. They feared they’d remain in a permanent exile; this prophecy gave them hope. Non-Jews, meanwhile, eager to see Jews defeated, feared this prophecy. The promised return to Israel threatened, in essence, to repeal that defeat. That potential worried the gentiles (ibid).
Fifty-seven years after the Temple was destroyed, advisers to the then-king of Persia, Achashverosh, decided that enough years of Jeremiah’s prophecy had passed to conclude that Jews were not going to return to Israel. They would remain defeated. Non-Jews could rest easy.
Achashverosh was delighted. He ordered a banquet to celebrate.
The story of Purim opens with this banquet. From this point, a series of events and ‘coincidences’ lead to the Jewish Esther becoming Queen (keeping her religion a secret) and the Persian Prime Minister (Haman) gaining royal permission to kill Jews all across the Persian empire.
After Esther hears of this plot to kill all the Jews, she is told by her mentor, Mordechai, that she must go to the king to plead for her people. But this instruction created a problem for her.
The kingdom had a special law: if anyone, including the Queen, went before the King without having been invited by him, they would be executed—unless the King decided to hold out his scepter towards them.
Esther knew this. She didn’t know how the king would react to her unsolicited appearance before him. Would he withhold the scepter and allow her to be executed, or would he extend the scepter to her and allow her to live?
This was why she fasted. She fasted for three days. She requested that all Jews fast with her, for her. After three days of fasting, she went to the king.
The king held out his scepter towards her. She would not be executed.
At this point, the story reaches its climax, as Esther begins a plan to foil Haman: instead of pleading before the king for her people, Esther invites the king to dine with her--and Haman.
At that dinner, the king asks her what she wishes. She replies that the king and Haman should return to a second dinner with her, where she will speak her mind.
At this second dinner, she announces there is one who would kill her and her people. This individual, she declares, is an enemy who does not care how much damage he causes the king.
Angered, the king asked, who is he? Where is the one who dares do this?
Esther tells him, "An enemy and a foe! This wicked Haman!"
The king reacted with anger. He ordered that Haman be hanged.
Esther had stopped the leader of the anti-Jew forces in Persia. However, with Haman hanged, the King’s anger immediately abated. He lost interest in rescinding Haman’s order to kill Jews.
Esther realized she must return to the king once again--and risk death again because she'd be going to the king, as before, unsolicited. She takes that risk. She is not executed.
At this meeting, she spoke of her people. She pleaded her case. The King gave her permission to save her people.
This Queen Esther was a woman of courage. She brought a ‘redemption’ to the Jewish (see ArtScroll Megillah 15b, note 16).
She’s a true Jewish heroine. She brought down the kingdom’s Jew-hating Prime Minister. She had the courage needed to go to the king knowing she could die if he didn’t extend his scepter to her. She saved the Jewish people.
Today, we remember these events with our own celebrations. On Purim, our children dress in costumes, we deliver gifts of food to each other, give charity to the poor and serve our own ‘banquets’. We celebrate how HaShem, the G-d of Israel, used man’s own reactions to events to save the Jews from the wicked Haman.
On Purim, we remember also that Haman was a descendant of the Jew-hating Amalek of Tanach. This is important to us today because our Heritage teaches that ‘Amalek’ rises in each and every generation to wipe out the Jewish people—and HaShem, our G-d, always makes certain those who rise up against us fail.
That’s what happened in Persia. That’s what happened in the Holocaust. It’s what happens today.
Purim reminds us we are survivors. It reminds us we’ve got a Friend ‘High up’.