Several years ago, towards the end of August, I returned to the States for what was meant to be a relaxed, uneventful trip – friends, family, a lecture or two. The last leg of the trip was a much-anticipated visit to friends in the Washington, DC area, along with a short shiur I was to give in their synagogue on Shabbat afternoon. For a New Yorker, visiting an American-Jewish suburban community is like going to a health resort. Everything is greener, calmer, less demanding.
Having no special events to attend on this trip, I decided to play the Israeli-under dresser card, and treat myself to a lightly packed suitcase. For an observant Jewish woman, that means no special Shabbat clothes, no Shabbat shoes, no hats.
I assumed that the talk I was to give, slated for Shabbat afternoon.
was intended for women, would be located in a small room off the main sanctuary, and would not be well attended. Shabbat afternoon in August. Who would come? I would borrow a beret.
Wrong on every count.
I was casually informed on Shabbat morning that my shiur would be held in the main sanctuary between Mincha (afternoon prayers) and Maariv (evening prayers). Thus, it would be well attended by a captive audience, made up mostly of men.
I was beside myself. The Midrash I had chosen to teach was strongly woman-oriented and I did not have proper clothes for a shiur in the main sanctuary.
You may wonder why I collate these two disparate entities – my outfit and my input? Teaching is a highly calibrated performance. The scenery is as important as the screenplay. I am the scenery.
I arrived at shul that morning unnerved, angry at myself for not having inquired more thoroughly about the lecture conditions, … and for not bringing proper clothes. Teaching in a main sanctuary demands respect and proper attire. Packing light may have been my first mistake, but it wasn’t my last.
It was in this state of self-deprecation that I arrived in shul and found myself inside a big beautiful American sanctuary, complete with a deep colored wooden ark and elevated bimah. Near the ark stood a beaming Rabbi, alongside a lovely 12-year-old Bat-Mitzvah, giving her first d’var Torah. The mood was festive and upbeat.
So much of what I love and missed about America hit me when I experienced this scene, the grandness, the optimism, the live and let live attitude toward religion. For 25 years, I had been praying in a suburban synagogue that was too small, had uncomfortable seats, no space for a kiddush, women behind a heavy curtain, and no bat-mitzvah speeches in the sanctuary until after kiddush, so that the objectors could flee. I love the unpretentiousness of Israel, but simplicity too has its limits. Year after year we discussed, petitioned, argued, applied and reapplied for a new synagogue, but it never happened.
So, there I was, feeling deep synagogue deprivation, along with wretchedness over all my misjudgments. I took a seat next to a lady with a beige straw hat, and, of course, a matching beige suit, and matching high-heeled shoes. I was in no mood for chit-chat or any other shul niceties.
But then it began.
“Are you a visitor?”
“I live in Israel.”
Please, no more, I prayed. Just let me sit here sunk in my own uber-drama. “Whom are you visiting?” she asked. And then it came out. Just like that: “Why do you have to know?”
The minute I said it, I regretted it. I tried immediately to make amends. “I’m visiting the Levi-Cohens.”
But she would have none of it. She turned to me and said, “That was a conversation stopper.”
I was struck by the fact that I had sinned. The real-deal sin. Not lighting candles too late, or eating dairy too soon after meat. This was sin in its essence. It was 3 weeks before the High Holy Days. How could I even think of praying for forgiveness?
Out of shame, and compassion for both of us, I moved to a far corner near no one. But I kept an eye on her intending to dash over after prayers and apologize. I was prepared to prostrate myself if needed. My clothes were a mess anyway. But then she was gone. Gone. I inquired from the women who had sat next to her where the lady-in-beige had gone. “She left early. She has guests and went home early to prepare.”
This was divine retribution. I wasn’t going to get to apologize, and to such a nice lady, who has friends and goes home early to prepare. I asked for the lady-in beige’s address. “No need,” she said. “I’m going there for lunch. I can pass on your message.” Not wanting to detain my hosts, and frankly, not wanting to divulge my crime, I passed on the message, intending to call right after Shabbat.
The shiur was indeed in the main sanctuary. I felt woefully under appointed in open-toe sandals and a mismatched beret. And then there she was. The Lady in Beige. Along with her husband, she had come to attend my shiur. Within seconds, my mood changed. I was exhilarated to see her. Now, I could apologize in person. And if the shiur is really good, I thought, maybe she would even forgive me.
I made a beeline to her immediately after the shiur, taking no chances that she would leave again. She was so gracious. She complimented the shiur, told me she had received my message, and accepted my apology with no fuss. Only then could I return to the others to answer questions.
From the corner of my eye, I spied her chatting with friends, not rushing to leave. So, I went back and thanked her for accepting my apology so graciously. “I don’t know how I could have faced the Yamin Noraim if you hadn’t come today.”
“I know,” she replied. “That’s why I came.”
“That’s why you came?! I asked.
“Yes,” she answered. “I gathered from my friend how upset you were, so I decided to come to your shiur. I knew that you would have a hard time with the Yamim Noraim if I didn’t come. I don’t usually come to the shiur on Shabbat afternoon.
I was speechless.
Fifty years of hearing shiurim about t’shuva and s’licha, and here it was, the pure essence of forgiveness – the enabling of another person, a complete stranger who had hurt you for no reason at all, to make amends. Gratefully, I thanked her for coming, for caring about my soul.
I went home lighter, packing my suitcase with the present from the Lady in Beige.