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The Fast That I Desire: Honoring Esther, Seeking Justice

Our world has not been perfect for quite a long time.

In every age, our people have struggled to act in ways that can bring our world as-it-is ever closer to the world we know needs to be.  Two thousand years ago, when facing ravaging drought, plaguing disease, or devastating pestilence, our ancestors would abstain from food and drink.  We read of their reasoning in the Talmud: a fast day is decreed to petition God for compassion and the removal of calamity (Palestinian Talmud, Taanit 4a.  The title of the tractate, Taanit, is the word for “Fast”).   The hope of old was that the community’s choice to deprive itself of basic necessities would arouse Divine Compassion, and change the future for the better.

As we prepare for Purim, we remember how our heroine, Esther, spoke truth to power in Persia.  When Mordechai told her of Haman’s horrendous plot, Esther advised Ahasuerus to alter the royal decree; the story of the Megillah that bears her name testifies that Esther’s bravery and leadership prevented a great calamity from befalling our people.  But if the vivid picture that remains in our mind is of the Queen daring to speak up and challenge the King, often we forget a small detail that precedes this epochal moment.  When Mordechai tells Esther of Haman’s wicked counsel, her response is simple: Esther asks Mordechai to proclaim three days of fasting for the entire Jewish community of Shushan.  Esther hoped that a community united in purpose could not just alter royal rule, but even could help avert an unfortunate Divine Decree.

Our Jewish calendar commemorates Esther’s request by observing Taanit Esther—the Fast of Esther—every year, on the day before Purim.  In my entire life, I must admit, I have never observed this “minor fast” (as our tradition calls it).  But this year is different.  From the evening of March 12th through to sunset on the 13th, I will observe Taanit Esther as I never have before: I will abstain from food and drink.  What make this year different from all other years?

This year, the National Council of Jewish Women has led the charge in organizing Jewish women to fast on Taanit Esther in order to speak truth to power—human and maybe even Divine—in our day.  A national group, We Belong Together, is partnering with SEIU and the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM), in leading a month-long, nationwide women’s action involving daily fasts for immigration reform. NCJW is sharing in this project by bringing together Jewish women (and some sympathetic male rabbis, such as myself) in a religious fast on March 13th.  On that day, our community will be united in speaking up for the immigrant women and families in our communities who suffer because of a broken immigration system that divides families and keeps many of our undocumented neighbors fearfully living in the shadows.   In the spirit of Queen Esther, Jewish women will fast on this sacred day in order to rouse compassion—Divine and maybe even human—for the immigrant community in America.

I hope our fast brings not only compassion, but also justice.  Unfortunately, in today’s immigration system, justice is far from achieved. Justice is delayed for the millions of family members who face up to decades-long backlogs in acquiring visas. It is denied to the 11 million undocumented immigrants who must live in the shadows of our society, away from the protective shelter of workplace standards and legal recourse. It is delayed for the 5,000 children who entered the foster care system when their parents were deported. It is denied for the LGBT Americans who cannot sponsor the visa of a spouse or partner the same way that a straight husband or wife can. We as Americans—we as Jews—can no longer delay our own pursuit of justice. The time is now to fix this broken system.

When our ancestors faced the broken systems of winds that brought locusts, or skies that held back the rains, they organized a fast.  They wondered, as Ruth Calderon captures:  What has the power to cause rain to fall?  What can bring the abundance of the heavens down on a parched Earth? What succeeds in piercing the hardened heart of a God who withholds rain? (Ruth Calderon, A Bride for One Night, p. 4).

I wonder in our day: What succeeds in piercing the hardened heart of a Congress, a House of Representatives, the government of the United States of America, who withhold justice? Our current immigration system fails to reflect the values I hold most dear as a Jew and an American. For too long, justice has been denied to 11 million undocumented men, women, and children.  As a Rabbi, I am proud to stand with American Jewish women: united, we have the power to stand together and use the Fast of Esther to demonstrate our resolve to ensure immigration reform remains a top priority in the House of Representatives and becomes a reality for the United States of America.  As happened to our heroic Queen Esther, the time has come for us to speak truth to power.

Rabbi Seth M. Limmer is rabbi of 
Congregation B’nai Yisrael of Armonk, New York.
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