Pesach, the holiday of redemption, is upon us. In 10 days, Jewish families around the world will come together to retell the story of the nation of Israel’s redemption from slavery in Egypt. It is a holiday that symbolizes freedom, relief, and joy.
The “weight” of the holiday never did much for me. I was always aware of the symbolism of the holiday, but the idea of seeing myself as though I too had left Egypt seemed a bit far fetched. I believed in the power of Pesach, of leaving our personal exiles and striving beyond our limitations, but nothing about Pesach in modern day screamed redemption to me. That is, not until I found myself waiting to receive a gett.
I found out that I was getting divorced in the freezer section of Trader Joe’s. It was a Sunday afternoon in early June. Summer had made its first appearance that week, and we were celebrating with the first barbecue of the season. As I walked through the freezer section, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the mirrored wall of the freezer. My floral cotton tichel sat snug on my head, drenched in sweat from a day of bike riding. I turned my eyes away from the reflection and choked back on tears. Every time I looked at myself in the mirror, I was newly reminded of my status. A woman in waiting. A woman in chains. It was nearing in on the third month of my plea for a gett.
As I stood there in the freezer section, perusing my shopping list, my phone rang. It was the rov from the Bais Din. I had not heard from him in days. I had given up calling him incessantly because I realized after so long that there was not much he could do to persuade my husband to present me with the document I needed to render me a free woman. But there he was, calling. I answered, right there with my other hand stuffed between the frozen corn and peas.
The gett ceremony was scheduled for four days following that day in Trader Joe’s, on Rosh Chodesh Tammuz—exactly a year to the day that my husband asked me to marry him. The shock and the irony of the day were not lost on me. I sighed in relief but also let out a sharp expression of pain. There was something so beautifully melancholy about that moment. No one wants to get divorced; especially not I. For everything that was right about the decision to leave this marriage, part of me wishes that things could have been different, that our marriage could have had a happy ending. But those words: “The date for the gett has been set” were the sweetest words I had ever heard. My freedom from an unhealthy marriage was within my grasp. I could taste the life that was waiting for me on the other side.
It’s no secret that there is a stigma surrounding divorce in the Orthodox Jewish community. It’s a taboo that is hardly ever discussed. If it is discussed, it is always done in hushed tones. For the past year, I’ve bought into the fear that the stigma has created: I have talked about my divorce the way one would speak of an uncomfortable rash that periodically flares up under my shirt, exposing its ugly self to the world.
There were many reasons for me to want to keep the story to myself. For one, ten months is not a long time in the grand scheme of things, and I needed to have the space and time to process it by myself, without the company and opinions of other people. Also, I was afraid. For every ounce of support I received during the divorce—there was a lot of it, thank G-d— I also received a lot of backlash from friends, acquaintances, even total strangers, who felt it was their rightful duty to tell me that I was making the worst decision of my life and that I would never be happy again (spoiler alert: they were wrong). I was scared of being judged; I was scared that my story would just be one more of the thousands to go unnoticed and unheard by a community that is afraid to face this epidemic.
On Sunday night, in honor of Rosh Chodesh Nissan, I was invited to celebrate at a Seudat Hoda’ah with close to a dozen women, who, like me, received their getts this year. We were asked to share our experiences and our strength with other women—married, single, and divorced—in attendance.
When it came to my time to speak, I hardly opened my mouth before the tears burst through the floodgates and rendered me silent. I was scared of what would be on the other side of this self expression. I was afraid of how I would be perceived. I was terrified of what it would be to finally have this story out in the open.
I was surprised to find redemption waiting for me there.
As I spoke, tears pouring down my face and wiping the mascara clean off my eyes, I felt lighter, freer, stronger. The year of my marriage, and the subsequent months of awaiting a divorce, made me lose my faith in everything—in G-d; in people; in myself. I believed that I had been abandoned by everything and everyone. Even if my heart was still pulsing and my eyes remained opened, I felt dead on the inside.
You cannot begin to heal until you break free. You have to take the first step, no matter how difficult, no matter how painful, to get to where you need to go.
You may find yourself asking: what do divorce, stigma, and a seudat mitzvah have to do with Pesach?
We learn about the first step of redemption in Parshat Shemot:
“And the children of Israel sighed from the labor, and they cried out, and their cry ascended to God from the labor. God heard their cry, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God saw the children of Israel, and God knew.”
When did the wheels of redemption begin to turn? When the Israelites sighed; when they opened their mouths and exhaled a heavy breath of pain and misery. Hashem heard their cries. The subsequent aliyah discusses Hashem revealing Himself to Moshe and giving him the task of redeeming the Jewish people. They took the first step, and it caused the chain of events to progress.
The first step is always the hardest. Opening my mouth and asking for help was the hardest step imaginable. Having the courage to speak in front of an audience about my experience was excruciating…but it brought me liberation. If you want to reach redemption in whichever area of your life it is needed most, you have to be willing to take the first step. The smallest sigh of the Israelites did not go unnoticed.
In every generation a person must see himself as if he had left Egypt. I’ve heard that phrase recited in various contexts for years, but I did not understand it until now. I too was in exile, as the slaves were two thousand years ago. I too opened my mouth and sighed out to Hashem. I too was redeemed.
It is our job to make the first move, to take that leap, to jump out of our mental limitations and set the process of redemption into motion. Not only is it an obligation for us to set ourselves free, but we must do so for those who are stuck and do not have the voice with which to ask for help. I speak specifically now of the agunot in my community, and in hundreds of other communities around the world. This crisis is not just their crisis; it is our crisis. To those who are stuck, I say: do not be afraid to speak up. And to those who are free, I say: do not be afraid to listen and offer support.
The Israelites believed they had been abandoned by Hashem, yet He redeemed them from the cruel and harsh labor of Egypt. To see ourselves in the story of their salvation means to recognize where the slavery of modern day lies, and to open our mouths to ask for help. To sigh. And to be redeemed.