January 18th, 2020

This World

Up Against The Wall

Susan Weintrob

By Susan Weintrob

Published October 23, 2017

Losing it

Amidst the heartfelt prayers of religious men and women modestly dressed and in deep devotion, a young woman walked up to the Western Wall.

She wore a sleeveless blouse and tight pants. Her head was uncovered. Each of these was a "no-no" in orthodox eyes, especially on the Sabbath.

I was praying at the Western Wall that hot morning while on a community leadership seminar. The Western Wall of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem is a special place. Touching its holy stones is to travel back in time almost 3,000 years.

As those around the young woman continued to pray, she began writing a note. To capture the moment, she took out her camera and snapped. Both of these actions publicly violated the laws of the Sabbath.

This was the last straw for the woman standing next to me. Dressed in a long black dress, her hair completely covered, she inhaled sharply, marched over to the woman and began screaming at her in Hebrew.

The language pouring out of this woman's mouth shocked me. She began belittling this young woman, who immediately began sobbing.

Another Orthodox woman, an American who moved to the Holy City's Jewish Quarter, walked over to the young woman, after first shushing the yeller.

The American quietly talked and put her arm around the distraught young woman. We would soon learn that her pilgramage to the Wall began early that morning with a bus ride from Haifa. Completely secular, she had never been to the holy site --- or any service for that matter. Despite having been born and raised in the Jewish State, she simply wasn't aware of Jewish laws and traditions.

The reason for this trip? Her young daughter had been diagnosed with cancer. For the first time in her life this mother wanted to pray her heart out, asking the Ultimate Healer for a refuah shalemah, a complete recovery for her child.

That note was a prayer for her ailing daughter.

Most of us teared up as we heard the the young woman's story and we joined in praying for her child.

The outraged woman suddenly fell silent.

The note, now already written, was placed in the Wall's cracks, in accordance with Jewish tradition.

The American, however, was not yet finished. It was now her turn to inhale. She turned to the yeller, who by now was embarrassed by her actions.

"You," she said her in American accented Hebrew, "you have committed the greater sin by disrupting the Sabbath, disrupting our prayers and worst of all, trying to bring shame to this young mother. If you wanted to bring her closer to Judaism, you might have reached out in compassion."

I stood by nodding, offering my support and agreement to what she said.

We read in the beginning of the Book of Samuel about Hannah, unable to have children, mouthing prayers through her tears at the shrine in Shiloh. Eli the Priest sits in the doorway, not recognizing Hannah's sincerity, pre-judges her and condemns her for coming drunk to disturb the holiness of the site.

Unlike our young mother at the Wall, Hannah ably defends herself, explaining that she had come to pray for a child. Eli, realizing his mistake, prays with her and Samuel the Prophet is born from these prayers. Today, Hannah's praying in a whisper is the model for many of our prayers.

The indignant woman at the Wall should have done what Eli had done. She should have listened and offered her prayers and support. It would have been a moment long remembered by both.

As my husband and I became observant more than 25 years ago, we questioned a compassionate Orthodox rabbi about religious people who react hostilely to non-religious individuals. His words remain with us today.

"Being kosher is more than what goes into your mouth," he said. "It's also what comes out."

A shady deal is called "not kosher" even in common usage today. The queasiness in our gut reminds us that ethics are critical to communities that want to nurture and nourish.

I think back to that young mother and hope her child is in remission and that our prayers helped. The incident remains engraved in my mind and I hope it did in the mind of the outraged woman who shouted and screamed. Prayer and observance should remind us to be kind to strangers and a light to the nations, a lesson I hope she learned.

As a Principal, students were often sent to my office because they had misbehaved; usually someone said something nasty or had bullied on the playground. Yet these same students enthusiastically collected canned goods during disasters or volunteered to help a local foster child agency.

Something like the woman who prayed so piously yet screamed at her neighbor.

I used to tell these students, "It's easy to be charitable to people you don't know and will never meet. It's not easy to be nice to that kid sitting next to you." Or to the person praying next to you.

Yet that is where we have to start.

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Susan Weintrob, one of JWR's very first contributors, is a retired educator who writes full time in Charleston, SC.

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