1. In the past it was customary for the leader of the community to address the congregation on a fast day (at the time of the Minchah prayers). The purpose of his address was to motivate his listeners to Teshuvah. It is also proper to reinstitute the custom at present. In that vein, I would like to make a few brief remarks.
Our sages declared “deed is most essential.” These remarks, too, are intended to motivate deed: the deed of Teshuvah. The main characteristic of Teshuvah is the striving to become better than before. All fasts share this intent. However, despite this commonality, each fast possesses a particular quality of its own, for no two things are exactly alike. This concept is obvious from the fact that there are several factors — e.g. the time of year during which the fast occurs, the Selichos prayers recited, and the name — which differentiate one fast from another.
There are two reasons given for the fast of Esther: 1) Since on the 13th of Adar “the Jewish people gathered together to defend themselves” and were in need of G-d’s mercies, they fasted that day. The precedent for fasting on a day of war was established by Moshe Rabbeinu, who made a fast on the day of the war with Amalek. This explanation raises two questions: a) If so, why is the fast called “the fast of Esther”? How was Esther connected to that fast? b) Jewish law explicitly forbids fasting during the time of war since it will weaken the soldiers. The victory depends on “the L-rd, G-d of Hosts”; nevertheless, Torah requires that an effort be made to insure the victory through natural means as well. Therefore, how could the Jewish people have fasted on the 13th of Adar?
2) The fast commemorates the fast mentioned in the Megillah. Esther asked of Mordechai: “Go, gather together all the Jews and fast for me ...for three days ...I and my maidens will also fast.” However, this opinion also raises questions. That fast lasted for three days and was carried out in the month of Nissan, while the fast of Esther is only for one day and is held during the month of Adar.
Since both opinions are recorded in Torah, each has a measure of validity, as our sages said: “These and these are the words of the living G-d.”
These two opinions represent two different types of divine service. The opinion that the fast is connected to the war is related to the natural way of the world. Achashverosh had already annulled the decree and “no man stood up to them (the Jewish people) for fear of them had fallen upon all the nations.” Yet, even though the natural order would seem to indicate that they would be victorious, the fact that they had to wage a war made it appropriate to fast. However, the fast requested by Esther represented a type of service above the limits of nature. According to the court rules, approaching the king without invitation meant death. Furthermore, the fast was intended to annul the decrees (both the physical decree, as well as the decree from above as related at length in the Midrash).
In this context, we can understand how one concept, “And G-d will bless you in all that you do,” is expressed by both opinions. That principle implies:
1) that we are commanded to work. In order to bring about G-d’s blessing, it is necessary for man to make an impact on the world within the limits of the natural order; and
2) that G-d promises He will bless us. His blessing brings success to a degree that is far beyond what could be expected as a result of our action alone. This concept is illustrated by the two opinions. The first opinion shows how man’s action, fasting during war, can bring about G-d’s blessing. The second opinion shows how that blessing is unbounded and can result in a miracle that transcends the limits of nature. The combination of both opinions teaches a third lesson: even when the result desired is a miracle that goes beyond the limitations of nature (the second opinion), it is necessary to carry out an activity like “collecting together to defend themselves” which is within the limitations of nature (the first opinion).
An mentioned above, the central characteristic of a fast is Teshuvah. Therefore, the concept explained above, which stresses the importance of man’s deed, must also be applied to the service of Teshuvah. In that context, deed refers to “feeling complete regret over the past and (making) positive resolutions for the future.” Also, a commitment to Teshuvah implies an intensification of our efforts in all matters of Torah and Mitzvos. Furthermore, since the fast of Esther is a preparation for Purim, its guidelines for action must be related to activities connected with Purim. Purim represented a strengthening of the Jewish people’s commitment to Torah as the Talmud declares: “They confirmed what they had undertaken long before (at the time of the giving of the Torah).” Torah is divided into three general categories: Torah, Avodah (which refers to the service of prayer) and deeds of kindness (which refers to the realm of Mitzvos). On Purim these three types of service are fulfilled as follows: Torah — through the special Torah reading and the reading of the Megillah; Avodah — through the recitation of the prayer V’al Hanissim and other prayers of praise;
Mitzvos — through Mishloach Manos (presents of food that are sent to friends) and Matanos L’Evyonim (gifts to the poor). Therefore, it follows that in preparation for Purim there must be an increase in these kinds of service.
2. There is a unique aspect connected with this years observance of the fast of Esther. The fast of Esther is usually held on the day before Purim. However, since this year Erev Purim is on Shabbos, the fast of Esther is held on the preceding Thursday the 11th of Adar. The 11th of Adar is a unique date. It is specifically mentioned in the Talmud (Megillah 2a) as the first day on which the Megillah could be read. [In those days, it was customary for the Jews living in the outlying villages to travel to the larger towns on Mondays and Thursdays. If Purim would fall on any day besides a Monday or a Thursday, the sages did not obligate the villagers to make an extra trip in order to hear the Megillah. Instead, they allowed them to have it read on the Monday or Thursday closest to Purim. In this context, the earliest date it was possible to read the Megillah was the 11th of Adar.]
Though we do not practice this custom at the present time and the Megillah is read only on Purim itself, the custom still provides a lesson for us. The reason the sages instituted the reading of the Megillah before Purim was to insure that all Jews be given the opportunity to hear the reading of the Megillah. Even at present, the arrival of the 11th of Adar should make us recall that custom and motivate us to work to insure that all Jews are able to hear the reading of the Megillah and fulfill all the other Mitzvos as well. Also, since the fast of Esther is pushed forward two days, we become conscious of Purim earlier. Instead of one day, we are given three days of preparation. This factor should also encourage an intensification of the campaign to spread the observance of Purim.
There is another lesson that can be learned from the fact that the fast is held today. The fast could have been held on Friday instead of Thursday. However, because of “the honor of Shabbos” it is observed on Thursday, and Friday is left free so that it can be used to prepare for Shabbos. The importance of Shabbos has particular emphasis this year. It is a Shemitah year, a year that is “a Shabbos unto G-d.” Furthermore, Rosh Hashanah, the “head of the year,” — as well as other holidays — occurred on Shabbos. This also emphasizes the dearness of Shabbos, and shows how all the affairs of this year must be carried out in a Shabbos-like manner.
3. As was mentioned before, the purpose of this address is to motivate action. Our sages say, “One must encourage a person before an act and at the time of the act.” In that context, it is proper to stress the importance of the Purim campaign. It is necessary to finish all the preparations for Purim today without relying on the subsequent days. These preparations will allow the campaign to function successfully. On Purim itself, an effort must be made to insure that every Jew fulfill the Mitzvos of Purim. In the Purim campaign, special attention should be paid to jails, orphanages, old age homes, hospitals, etc. In those places an effort must be made to spread the joy of Purim, for “there is no greater and more glorious joy (before G-d) then that (which results) from making glad the hearts of poor people.” Also, special effort should be taken to spread the Mitzvos of Purim to those Jews who protect other Jews and mankind in general wherever they are.
The above particularly applies in the land of Israel, “the land where the eyes of G-d are always upon it.” An effort must be made to reach out to the soldiers who protect the land of Israel and its inhabitants. Spreading the Mitzvos of Purim among them will cause “the fear of the Jews to fall upon them (Israel’s enemies).” Then the Jewish people will enjoy “light and joy, gladness and honor.”
To summarize the above: The essential aspect of a fast is Teshuvah, “complete regret over the past and the resolve to do good in the future.” In addition, the fast of Esther teaches the need for an intensification of our commitment to Torah and Mitzvos. It stresses the acceptance of Torah with desire and joy as the Jews did on Purim when they “confirmed what they had undertaken long before.”
Since “deed is most essential,” the above must be expressed in deed: in the intensification of the Purim campaign as well as the ten other Mivtzayim: Mivtzah Ahavas Yisrael, Mivtzah Chinuch, Mivtzah Torah, Mivtzah Tefillin, Mivtzah Mezuzah, Mivtzah Tzedakah, Mivtzah Bayis Maley Seforim — Yavna V’Chachameha, Mivtzah Nairos Shabbos Kodesh, Mivtzah Kashrus, Mivtzah Taharas Hamishpachah. And may their fulfillment lead to the greatest Mivtzah which G-d will carry out when He will redeem the Jewish people with the coming of Mashiach in our days.
- (Back to text) Similarly, in regard to people, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a, 38a) explains that “all men are sealed with the same seal (i.e. their basic features are similar) yet no two people are alike,” in voice, appearance, and thought.
- (Back to text) The significance of a difference in name is particularly important in the light of the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching that an object’s name communicates its essential character.
- (Back to text) Furthermore, the fact that the fasts are holy matters implies that even if they did not each possess a unique individual nature, their observance would be different. It would be necessary to follow the principle, “Proceed higher in holy matters,” and each new fast would represent a higher level than the previous one.
- (Back to text) There is an opinion that maintains that the reading of the Megillah is an act of praise (Megillah 14a).
- (Back to text) This lesson is given particular emphasis this year when the fast of Esther falls on the 11th of Adar. Prayer is one of the essential aspects of a fast day. In the Siddur the Alter Rebbe writes, “Before prayer, it is proper to say: ‘I hereby take upon myself to fulfill the Mitzvah, Love your fellowman as yourself’.” When we unite with the entire Jewish people, our prayers become more acceptable to G-d. Therefore, a fast day which emphasizes prayer should also stress Jewish unity and the need to spread all the Mitzvos connected with Purim to all Jews.
- (Back to text) On Shabbos we. are forbidden to prepare for the coming days, and on Friday it is necessary to prepare for Shabbos; therefore all preparations for Purim must be done today.