Judaism: Move de Line: Agunot and Shalom Bayit
"Why can’t we all just get along?”
- Rodney King
Few people could have greater justification to cry out for vengeance than Rodney King. Videotape captured five Los Angeles police officers beating the African-American construction worker, with several other officers standing by without taking any action to stop the beating. Four of the officers were charged with assault with a deadly weapon and the use of excessive force. Three of the four were acquitted on all counts. The fourth was acquitted on the deadly weapon charge with the jury unable to reach a verdict on the use of excessive force.
The four were subsequently tried in Federal court for violating Mr. King’s civil rights. After the subsequent verdict, which sent two of the officers to jail, there were riots in the streets of Los Angeles. At which time, Mr. King went on television to ask for peace, saying, “Can’t we all just get along?”
In parashat Ki Tetzei, Moses teaches us, almost as an afterthought, “Do not hate an Edomite because he is your brother.” This teaching is understandable. After all, even an estranged brother who has wronged me is still my brother. But then, in a leap hard to grasp for many of us, the Torah goes on to teach, “Do not hate an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land.” (23:8)
What? How can we help but hate those who enslaved us? Whose king demanded that “every male Israelite born be thrown into the Nile”? There must be a deeper meaning to these words! How could we be expected to develop good relations with such a mortal enemy? Which do we do? Do we recall our suffering in Egypt (l’maan tizkor et yom tzetcha m’eretz mitzrayim) or do we “not hate an Egyptian”?
When I studied at Yeshiva University, hundreds of us would rush to the cafeteria after morning learning seder to quickly get our lunches so we could make it to our afternoon shiur on time. As you can imagine, the line could grow very long. There, standing behind the counter, dishing out daily helpings of whatever was on the menu was a gentle, Holocaust survivor, Mr. Weber. To this day, so many years later, I can still hear his voice prompting us along, “Move de (the) line, move de line.”
Over the many years of my life, his constant refrain has become integral to my life’s philosophy. For, to me, he was not simply asking us not to slow down the line. He was telling us not to get stuck in a tough spot and, by extension, not to remain mired in the bitterness of the inevitable challenges and disappointments we all face; not to bear grudges for the rest of our lives. We all have to “move de line.”
“Moving de line” means letting go of the negatives that hold us back; letting go of the things that enslave us, that humiliate us, that degrade us. Ironically, until we can let go of those things, we will remain enslaved – even long after our captors have set us free! We need to “move de line” if we are to forge new paths and realize new goals.
Hurt begets hurt. Anger begets anger. Hate begets hate.
If you want to move de line, you have to let go of hurt and anger. If your “captor” allows you to go free, the least you can do is grant yourself the same grace. As long as you continue to be enslaved by negativity, you can know no freedom; you cannot embark on a new beginning. You are stuck.
As Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks eloquently teaches, “To be free, you have to let go of hate. That is what Moses is saying. If they continued to hate their erstwhile enemies, Moses would have taken the Israelites out of Egypt, but he would not have taken Egypt out of the Israelites. Mentally, they would still be there, slaves to the past. They would still be in chains, not of metal but of the mind – and chains of the mind are the most constricting of all.”
But what of all the mitzvoth recalling yetziat mitzrayim – including those recalled on Shabbat, when laying tefillin, putting on our tzitzit or reciting the ancient truths at our Seders? In truth, there is no hate, no rage, no call for revenge or retaliation – not even a shred of negativity – in any of these mitzvoth. Instead, they focus on the positive – remember! Remember. Learn. Grow.
Move de line.
Rav Soloveitchik views the Egyptian exile and suffering as the, “…experience which molded the moral quality of the Jewish people for all time.” Rather than embitter us, our experience in Egypt and subsequent emancipation teaches us not to hate and retaliate, but rather teaches us, “…ethical sensitivity, what it truly means to be a Jew. It sought to transform the Jew into a rachaman, one possessing a heightened form of ethical sensitivity and responsiveness.”
The most practical method of teaching compassion, sensitivity and concern for others; the most direct way of imparting a sense of mitgefiel is to recall one’s own experience of tzara. It should come as no surprise that it is often he who has suffered sickness who best understands the discomfort of the ill; he who has sustained loss who can best comfort the bereaved, and he who knew wealth and success but who suffered reversals who can best identify with a colleague or neighbor who confronts similar obstacles. Isn’t that one reason AA groups are so successful? Former addicts – those who know what it means to overcome addiction – help those trying to beat their own addiction?
To recall our former state of helplessness and degradation does not demand our hate or recrimination toward anyone, even those directly responsible for our galus. Quite the opposite. Our memory serves to give us insight so that we can impart compassion and sympathy for the oppressed and underprivileged in society, communally and individually. The galus experience sharpens and refines our ethical sensitivity and moral awareness. The Torah commands us, “You shall not pervert the justice due a stranger or to the fatherless, nor take a widow’s garment in pawn.”
“Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you to observe this commandment.”
Thirty six times we are exhorted to treat the stranger kindly. Why? Because you were gerim in Egypt. You know the nefesh ha’ger. Therefore, you are expected to behave more kindly and ethically than one who does not know what it means to be a stranger.
This is no easy task, to draw positive lessons from life’s challenges and hurts. It does not come easy to be caring rather than spiteful. We struggle to let go of hatred when it is directed toward one who has been a mortal enemy. Yet, we do so, just as we have learned “not to hate” the Egyptians. Yet, too often, we cling to our animosity when it is directed toward those who had once been to us “as one flesh”?
We see anger, bitterness and hatred expressed and acted upon between divorced couples – all to the detriment of each other and, most certainly, to any children caught in the middle of these raw emotions. Divorce, with all its hurt, uncertainty and loss should not lead to lifelong enmity. Two people need to find a new path forward, a path that will remain lost to them until they can find a way to live with civility, decency and sensitivity toward one another.
Tizkor et eretz mitzrayim!
Move de line!
The promise of the chuppah was unrealized. This is terribly sad. The kiddushin did not take hold. It happens more often than any of us would like. But when it does, let’s turn the pages of the Tractate Gittin.
Move de line.
Why should our frum and hareidi community allow for so many pained husbands to focus on hatred and spite rather than freedom and sensitivity? Why insist on keeping wives in chains, literally and figuratively? Why should an unsuccessful marriage be made even worse; twisted into the enslavement of a tormented agunah wife, witnessed by bewildered and frightened children?
Did not these “learned” husbands take to heart the teachings of Torah and mussar? Where does our tradition teach to maintain such venom toward a woman with whom you had intended to spend your life? Where do our sages teach to plant your boot upon the neck of the woman who gave birth to your children?
The marriage did not work. It is sad. It is hurtful. But what do our unhappy days in Egypt teach you about your suffering? To continually hate? No! The very opposite. To not hate!
No good will ever come from hatred – not personal nor communal. Moving forward can only be accomplished by letting go. Move de line. Get on with life!
Once again, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is particularly articulate and powerful when he teaches, “Hatred and liberty cannot coexist. A free people does not hate its former enemies; if it does, it is not yet ready for freedom. To create a non- persecuting society out of people who have been persecuted, you have to break the chains of the past; rob memory of its sting; sublimate pain into constructive energy and the determination to build a different future.”
To any spiteful husband who has not yet delivered the get to his chained wife – seek a rav, a therapist, a friend, someone, anyone who can help you let go of your hate, who can help you turn your heart toward freedom – yours and your ex’s.
If you are a friend, a teacher, a mentor to such a husband, take him by the hand; help him free himself from his self-affliction. Declare freedom for him and his agunah wife.
How about right now, before Rosh Hashanah? During the ten days of repentance? On Yom Kippur? Let the new year be a real new beginning! Take your first steps on a new path, one that leads to freedom, to a life free of hatred and blame.
He who thinks that a get refusal is the “last, best weapon” to use as punishment is deceiving himself. It is not only his agunah wife who is forced to remain enslaved. He is also enslaved by his hurt, anger and hate.
As long as you hate, you remain a slave.
No slave can honestly recite al chet! Accept the responsibility and joy of freedom.
Move de line. Move de line.
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as OU Kosher’s vice president of communications and marketing.