Esther’s Use of Prayer and its Impact on Ours: Finding the Right Words in a Broken World

I have always been amazed by Esther’s bravery. As we will read in the Megilla on Purim, Queen Esther approaches King Achashverosh in order to petition him to spare the Jews from the evil plot of Haman. Esther acknowledges that she is putting her life at risk in order to ask to see the king. The law is harsh—whoever enters into the inner court to see the king without being invited shall be put to death. If Achashverosh offers Esther his golden scepter, however, she will be spared and can plea for the fate of the Jewish people. In preparation for this meeting, Esther calls a three day fast for all the Jews in Shushan in order to pray for the continued existence of the Jewish people.

I imagine that those prayers echoed the inner yearnings of Esther’s heart, full of fear, anger, compassion, and hope. Ultimately, King Achashverosh welcomes her into the inner chamber, listens to and acts on her request, and saves the Jewish people from annihilation. In memory of Esther’s bravery and call for fasting and prayer, Jews around the world fast on Taanit Esther, the fast of Esther, each year observed before Purim. (Thursday, March 9, 2017)

Each Taanit Esther, I am moved to pray for things that weigh heavily on my soul. This year, there is much to pray for including the health of our families and friends, alleviation of poverty, hunger, and disease, an end to acts of hate and the anti-Semitism we see both in our country and around the world, peace in America, Israel, and in other areas endangered by extremist, violent groups, and the plight of refugees all over the world.

Our sages remind us to keep our prayers relevant and meaningful: “Do not make your prayers mechanical, rather, they should be true entreaties before the Holy One, blessed be God.” (Pirkei Avot 2:13) I imagine Esther’s prayers during this three day period to be potent and personal, reaching the highest levels of heaven.

Taanit Esther models for us the power of prayer; through entreaty of God we can imagine and hope to see a better world. Sometimes the words we use for prayer are offered to us in the form of Hebrew words written down in prayer books, passed down for hundreds, and sometimes, thousands of years. Other times they are the words emerging from our hearts that ring true for us dependent on our own ideologies and beliefs. For that reason it is incumbent on us to be present in services, participating by searching for the deep truths within our souls and not just letting the siddur do the praying for us.

Sometimes our siddur, prayer book, reflects our beliefs and sometimes it does not. Often I find that the siddur does not represent the world or God in a way that rings true for me at any given time, and at others there is deep
resonance that emerges from the siddur for me. Different denominations’ prayer books have at times adapted their language to the needs of those using them to agree more with the words on the page. The Conservative Movement has adapted some changes in its history, including in the Amidah, the standing prayer, the addition of the imahot, the listing of foremothers—Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Other changes include a special
paragraph in the Amidah celebrating Israel’s Independence Day, as well as language that reflects an ideological move away from a belief that a physical Temple will be rebuilt in the future, restoring sacrificial cultic worship again.

In the weeks following Taanit Esther and Purim, Shaarei Tikvah will be participating in inclusive, meaningful prayer experiences, including an all-school Tefilah on March 18 where our children will be leading services and chanting from the Torah and Haftarah, and LK2 Shabbat—Learning Kehillah in Memory of Louis Kellner z”l—on March 25. Both of these Shabbat experiences will include prayer in different forms with the goal of inspiring our community to engage deeply with prayer, both learning new skills to participate as well as feeling the power of Jewish
communal experience by using the words of our ancient Tradition and filling the room with our voices and our
personal meditations.

Additionally, I would like to encourage all of us to participate in our morning minyan services, Mondays and
Thursdays at 7 a.m. and Sundays at 9 a.m. Our services are at times traditional and other times creative. We go deep into the meaning of the prayers and we also enjoy the beautiful music of the service and its haunting
melodies. It is a meaningful way to begin the day and we offer those saying kaddish the gift of being able to say this prayer which can only be said in the presence of ten people. Please make every effort to attend at least once a month.

It is my hope that as we open our siddurim, we see words which reflect not only where we came from but also who we are and who we would like to become. Sometimes the text that can help us feel the most spiritually connected or centered is the one that is within us. For the rabbis of our Tradition, prayer has always been a combination of texts, both internal and external. I look forward to discussing this journey with each one of you as we experience prayer together.

Chag Purim Sameach

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