Breaking the Chains of Agunot
The Fast of Esther, is also International Agunah Awareness day. Like an agunah, Queen Esther was trapped in a marriage against her will. Traditionally, Jews fast to bring about a change within themselves and within God, but the challenge of course is that we find it easier to ask God for help than to do the difficult work of peering into our souls and take those halting first steps towards change.
It is all too easy to assume that the blame for the agunah problem lies only with the recalcitrant husbands who refuse to give their wives a gett or with the rabbis who have the power to find halachic solutions but absolve themselves of their responsibility. However, the oppression of the marginalized is never just the guilt of the select few. As Ibn Ezra explains, all who hear the cries of the destitute and do nothing to help are also culpable (Shemot 22:22).
In my time as a rabbi, I have become deeply sensitized to the ways in which the problem of agunah lurks in the shadows of nearly every divorce. I have seen congregants pay tens of thousands of dollars in order to ensure that they receive a gett and witnessed others who lived in anxiety for months fearful that their husbands might not follow through on the divorce. The orthodox community must see the problem of agunot as something independent of communal politics. It is something for which we are collectively responsible. We must all support organizations like the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot and the International Beit Din L’Agunot, which work tirelessly to free women from chained marriages. We must look to Esther as a role model for demonstrating that even in times of uncertainty when the task appears daunting, individuals must stand up and take responsibility for others.
At mincha we will read from the words of Isaiah, chapters 55 and 56 as is read on all minor fast days, but my mind will be thinking about a different section of Isaiah. The holiday of Purim has a unique connection to Yom Kippur. According to the Zohar, Yom Kippur is really Yom HaK’Purim- a day like Purim. In the haftarah recited on Yom Kippur morning, we read the following:
Isaiah Chapter 58
5) Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?
6) No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke
The prophet harshly criticizes those who would believe that fasting is a replacement from doing the essential work of pursuing justice. It is God’s true wish that we not worry about ourselves, but that we break the chains that so cruelly oppress others. If we are not working to free those who unfairly suffer then we share some responsibility for keeping them in chains.
ישעיהו פרק נח:ו
“הֲלוֹא זֶה, צוֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ–פַּתֵּחַ חַרְצֻבּוֹת רֶשַׁע, הַתֵּר אֲגֻדּוֹת מוֹטָה; וְשַׁלַּח
רְצוּצִים חָפְשִׁים, וְכָל-מוֹטָה תְּנַתֵּקוּ”.
אל תקרי אגודות אלא עגונות
No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness And untie the cords (agudot) of the yoke, To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke
One should not read it as agudot rather as agunot