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Any society has esoteric observances. In India people defer to cows that wander through thoroughfares. Christians may be appalled to consider themselves as cannibals, and yet those who take the eucharist believe that this is the symbolic eating of their savior.
As much as Jews may be aware of strange observances by non-Jewish neighbors, and as confident as Jews are in the sensibility of the Jewish heritage, there is no doubt that there is much in traditional Judaism that is absolutely esoteric, strange and peculiar. We have rules about what we may eat and what we may not, what we may wear, whom we may marry, when we should avoid fun, and when we should indulge. Yet among all the strange practices of our people, there is none less explicable than the Fast of Esther. Most years it is on Purim eve, this year it is two days before Purim.
Think about the fast. Why is it observed in this day and age? The fast was declared by Queen Esther as a demand for her people to join in prayer and self denial as she prepared to visit to see her husband, the King Ahasuerus. uninvited. Jewish tradition from biblical times and through our own era has used fasting as a means of intervening with God, denying ourselves as we sought the Almighty’s intercession at times of calamity or potential danger. In Esther’s case, the evil decree of Viceroy Haman needed to be rescinded.
The issue is why fast today? If the Scroll of Esther is historical, millennia have passed since Esther sought divine help; since the salvation she wanted came to be; and since she passed away. For those who listen to biblical scholars who assert that the scroll may be fictional, God only knows why they would even consider fasting .
Below are at least a couple of reasons that occur to me for the continued fast. I admit, though, even as I write them, I am not sure how compelling they will be to others.
Esther’s call for the community to fast can also be described as her request for the community to join together as one. Any opportunity for the Jewish community to unite in common cause is worth pursuing. Moreover, if there is benefit in observing Esther’s call for all Jews to read her adventure, exchange gifts, imbibe and party, is there not equal benefit in all Jews heeding her call to fast?
The Purim holiday marks the triumph of good over evil, of scholarship over ignorance, of community over individualism. It is a day marked by feasting and self indulgence. It is the only holiday when it is a mitzvah to drink, some say to get drunk. If feasting and self indulgence become the call of Purim, perhaps Jews need a day before devoted to self-denial and self-awareness. Perhaps it is the day when we become aware that a day of doing without will strengthen us and our resolve, and atune us to the contrast between Purim and the days leading to it.
Wishing a meaningful and joyful Purim to all readers.