Today, we fast for Esther, and we fast for Vashti, and perhaps most importantly we fast for agunot: women who do not have the agency they are entitled to
In the story of the Megillah, the Jews gathered to pray and fast over the impending decree. It was Esther, the secret Jewess, the queen, who had ordered them to do so. Why? Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi teaches that Esther called for this ta’anit (fast) because she, like everyone in the kingdom, knew the travesty that had taken place: Vashti was killed for disobeying her husband; a woman was brutally slain for the crime of having her own agency. And on top of that, letters were sent out warning the public against similar behavior — “let no wife act brazenly against her husband.” For the life of me, I can’t understand how this never enraged me before.
Rabbanit Tova Eliyahu of Tsfat once shared with me a midrash about the Megillah so sad, I am still recovering from it. According to some commentators, Esther was married to Mordechai, a holy and righteous man. She was taken to be the wife of Achashverosh, but was halachically permitted to remain married to her husband because she was an anusa — every time she was with Achashverosh, it was against her will. This loophole allowed her to maintain her relationship with her beloved husband. When she went to Achashverosh of her own accord, of her own agency, to beg for the decree against her people to be lifted, she was in fact saying goodbye to Mordechai forever. And that is why she asked and begged for the entirety of the Jewish people to fast and pray for her. The moment when Esther approached Achashverosh was the monumental turning point of the Megillah for more reasons than one.
So while the Jews rejoiced, clinked glasses and exchanged gifts, Esther, having given up her happiness and any chance for a brighter future, lived out the remainder of her life with the vile Achashverosh.
Esther commanded the Jews to fast and pray in mourning for her sister, Vashti, as well as for herself.
And today we fast in painful memory. For what is the significance of Purim without Ta’anit Esther, when we commemorate the dark side of such a seemingly child-friendly tale. Today, we fast for Esther, and we fast for Vashti, and perhaps most importantly we fast for agunot: Ta’anit Esther is also Yom Ha’aguna, International Agunah Day. Today we stand in solidarity with women who are victims of get refusal, and women whose husbands cannot give them gets for various reasons. Women who are chained against their will to dead marriages, who are prohibited from marrying another, from moving on and pursuing their own happiness. Women who do not have the agency they are entitled to.
* * *
Last Shabbat, we read Parashat Zachor: “Remember what the nation of Amalek did to you as you journeyed out of Egypt.” My husband and I unfortunately didn’t make it to synagogue on time for Torah reading, but we knew the rules: hear Parashat Zachor before the sun goes down, rain or shine. And rain it did: we were soaked almost as soon as we left our building. Rain fell in sheets, interspersed with occasional little white spheres of hail for good measure.
We were dripping when we finally reached the synagogue, but thankfully made it just in time for a late reading of Parashat Zachor. We parted: my husband went inside to the men’s section, and I remained outside to crowd around a window amongst several women and children. Outside, in the freezing rain — the synagogue did not have a women’s section. At first, it didn’t phase me: we had come to this particular neighborhood because this was where we would surely catch Parashat Zachor at this hour. But as the words floated out the window to meet my ears — “Remember what Amalek did to you,” tears began to silently stream down my already rain-soaked face.
Chassidut teaches us that Amalek is a spiritual concept: that of self-doubt. We are commanded by God to wipe out the evil of self-doubt from the world. Zachor is a reminder to never doubt your own Godliness, your pure soul, how necessary you are for the continued existence of the universe.
And in that moment, the rain, and the thunder, and the hail, and the voice of the Torah reader floating out the window all merged together in a chorus and it was saying something like this:
Remember, you were created in the image of God. Remember, when you demand your place in Judaism, and in Jewish life, it comes from your holy soul and your longing for God. Remember, nobody can deny you your agency as a human being and as a woman. Remember, to never doubt your soul, your light, your necessity, your place in this world.
* * *
The following evening, I made a donation to an organization that provides legal assistance to victims of get refusal. I made the donation in memory and in honor of Vashti.