Fasting Before Feasting
Why do we fast on Ta’anit Esther before feasting on Purim?
Let us go back thousands of years to find the answer. Picture the scene.
Jews throughout the Persian Empire prepare themselves for the battle against the forces of Haman. Thanks to the intervention of Queen Esther they have been granted royal permission to defend themselves against their Amalekite enemies bent on genocide.
But why are they fasting?
The answer lies in what took place almost a thousand years earlier. Moshe instructs his disciple Yehoshua to mobilize the forces to battle the Amalekites, who ambushed the nation just liberated from Egyptian bondage. He also declares a fast as a means of gaining Heavenly support. Moshe thus sets an example for all generations to total dependence on G-d, an example which was emulated by Jews fighting against the Amalekites of their day a thousand years later.
In the Reading of the Torah on Purim we relive that first war with Amalek. After appointing Yehoshua as military commander, Moshe, accompanied by his brother Aharon and his nephew Chur, ascends to the top of a hill overlooking the battlefield. The prayers of this sainted threesome for Heavenly assistance set the pattern for the prayer which will be offered by community elders throughout the generations on fast days in times of trouble.
But Moshe is also doing something else to help achieve victory. He raises his hands, inspiring his warriors to look Heavenwards and put their faith in G-d. Only when his hands are up does the Army of Israel prevail, and when he tires he is supported by Aharon and Chur until final victory is gained.
Now let us see how this crucial lesson of total dependence on G-d is applied a millennium later. Queen Esther is charged by Mordechai to risk her life by making an uninvited appearance before the king. She is to plead for her people, whose survival is threatened by the royal decree instigated by the wicked Haman for genocide in the Month of Adar. Eleven months before the date set for that tragedy she prepares herself for that fateful meeting by calling for a three-day fast by all the Jews in the capital city of Shushan. Although it would seem that she should make every effort to maintain her attractiveness in order to find favor in the eyes of the king, she also fasts for three days, making it necessary for Heavenly angels to support her and enhance her appearance when she meets the king.
Is this not an echo of Yehoshua's soldiers fasting and looking Heavenward as Moshe prays for them?
We come full circle in this fasting cycle eleven months later when, on the 13th day of the Month of Adar, the day set for the "final solution" of Haman's "Jewish problem", the tables are turned as the Jews destroy their enemies. Once again the Jewish fighters are fasting, and it is on this day that Ta’anit Esther is ordained by our Sages as a reminder that G-d responds to the repentance and prayers of those who turn to Him.
To feast on Purim in celebration of our deliverance from the genocidal plot of Haman without first fasting on Ta’anit Esther would be an incomplete experience. It is not sufficient to recall the miracle without reflecting on what made us worthy of it.
The Hamans of today once again pose a serious threat to our people. Only by our putting our faith in G-d, and appealing to Him with the repentance and prayer which saved us in the days of Moshe, Yehoshua, Mordechai and Esther, will we be worthy of a Purim miracle in our own day.