When I was a little girl, I dressed up as queen Esther for many consecutive Purims. “I want to be a heroine too,” I told my parents. “I want to be a queen, and save us all. I will defeat Haman and be magnificent, like Esther.”
I still revere Esther. But I also weep for her. You were indeed magnificent, and so very brave, I whisper to her through my tears. Yet there was no Happily Ever After for you, no way out. You saved us, but there was no one around to save you.
Imagine what her life must have been like. Her fate was in the hands of a husband who killed his previous wife on a whim, and who supported his favorite’s plans one week, only to hang him for them in the next. Did Esther ever truly feel secure? Like the Jews she so brilliantly rescued, her safety was forever temporary, and a cause for constant concern. She gained a victory, but remained in bondage.
Esther didn’t even have the luxury of disobedience. The king had the power to hurt her people, and she couldn’t afford to displease him. Worse, she had to actively seek ways to gain his favor and maintain it in order to secure her nation. She had to make his pleasure the center of her life, the foremost topic in her thoughts. What an existence to be reduced to!
Esther’s plight is highlighted by other story lines in the megillah. Achashverosh granted people instances of free will, but they were exposed as illusory and transient by the king’s whimsical use of force. He invited his subjects to a party where they could drink according to “each man’s wish,” but the same party ended with Vashti’s execution. He magnanimously acquiesced to Haman’s genocide, declaring that “the nation is yours to do with as you please,” only to change his mind within days. He let each prospective bride come to his palace with “whatever she requested” from the harem, but the choice to come was never in her hands. How generous to let them choose trinkets on their way to be raped! Under such conditions, the best Esther could hope for was to curry the king’s favor for a little longer, to gain security one gift of free will at a time.
We have no king today, but Esther’s bondage still exists. There are still people who subjugate others to their whims, trying to reduce them into complete dependence. What does it do to one’s soul? Ask women who live with abusive husbands what their marriages do to them. You will hear about fearful attempts to please, about an ongoing struggle to sooth. You will hear about grown women asking permission to buy this or do that, hoping to survive, wondering if they are the ones in the wrong.
And for some, the bondage is cemented by the very system that brought us Megillat Esther. When a Jewish wife wants to separate from her husband, he has to willingly give her a get, a bill of divorce. Otherwise, she can’t move on and remarry. When the laws of divorce were created they actually improved the standing of the wives. But today, some men take advantage of this system and withhold a get. They use the system to become their wives’s gaolers and tormentors. She must please them to escape. She must submit to their demands to become free, and some refuse even then.
Ask women whose husbands withhold get what it feels like to depend on their tormentor’s will, and on the willingness of the rabbinical courts to intercede. But be warned, don’t ask if you can’t bear the answer, for it will haunt you henceforth. It will make you weep with frustration, hit the wall in anger, wish to burn the system to the ground. It will make you angry for the women’s sake, but also for Judaism’s sake, for how can that be what our God had intended?
I sometimes hear intelligent, well-meaning people say things like “there are always two sides to every story,” or “there are female get-witholders as well,” or “the statistics are inflated, there aren’t as many agunot as people say.” Even if they’re right, does it really matter? As Geula Ben Eli recently said, when she received her get after twenty one years of struggle, “there are constantly arguments between the rabbinical courts and women’s organizations about the number of agunot. As far as I’m concerned, it’s enough that there is one case – me! Isn’t it enough for them to try harder?” If there is even one woman among us who is in bondage, even one Esther, isn’t it enough for us to rally to her side?
We can’t help queen Esther. Every Purim, when we hear of her bravery and wisdom, we can only salute her, and weep in our hearts. But we can help the “Esthers” of our day. We can educate ourselves about their plight. We can support the organizations that assist them, like ORA in America and Mavoi Satum and Yad Laisha here in Israel. We can put pressure on their abusers. We can make get refusal a national crusade.
Wednesday, the “fast of Esther,” many Jews also mark the “International Agunah Day”. At ten o’clock, Ruth Colian will lead a rally by the rabbinical court in Jerusalem. I plan to be there. Will you join me?