Several years ago, towards the end of August, I returned from Israel to the United States for what was supposed to be a relaxed, uneventful trip – friends, family, a conference or two. The final stop on the trip was a long-awaited visit to friends in the Washington, DC area, as well as a short shiur I was to give at their synagogue on Shabbat afternoon. For a New Yorker, visiting a suburban American Jewish community is like going to a spa. Everything is greener, calmer, less demanding.
Having no special events to attend on this trip, I decided to play the Israeli sub-dresser card and treat myself to a lightly filled suitcase. For a practicing Jewish woman, this means no special Shabbat clothes, no Shabbat shoes, no hats.
I assumed that the speech I was to give, scheduled for Shabbat afternoon, was for women, would be located in a small room next to the main shrine, and would not be well attended. Shabbat afternoon in August. Who would come? I would borrow a beret.
False in all respects.
I was accidentally informed on Shabbat morning that my shiur would be standing in the main shrine between mincha (afternoon prayer) and maariv (evening prayer). Thus, it would be well attended by a captive audience, composed mainly of men.
I was beside myself. The Midrash I chose to teach had a strong female focus and I did not have appropriate clothing for a shiur in the main shrine.
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You might be wondering why I am bringing these two disparate entities together: my outfit and my contribution? Teaching is highly calibrated performance. The setting is as important as the scenario. I am the landscape.
I arrived at the synagogue that morning angry, angry with myself for not learning more about the conditions of the conferenceâ¦ and for not bringing appropriate clothing. Teaching in a main sanctuary requires respect and proper dress. The lightweight packaging may have been my first mistake, but it wasn’t the last.
It was in this state of self-mockery that I arrived at Shul and found myself inside a large and beautiful American shrine, with a deep colored wooden arch and a raised bimah. Near the ark stood a beaming rabbi, alongside a charming 12-year-old bat mitzvah, giving him his first d’var Torah. The atmosphere was festive and upbeat.
So many things that I love and missed about America hit me when I experienced this scene, the greatness, the optimism, the live and let live attitude towards religion . For 25 years I had prayed in a suburban synagogue that was too small, with uncomfortable seats, no room for a kiddush, women behind a heavy curtain and no bat mitzvah speech in the shrine until after the kiddush, so that opponents can flee. I love the simplicity of Israel, but simplicity has its limits. Year after year, we have argued, petitioned, argued, asked for and re-asked for a new synagogue, but it never happened.
So I was there, feeling deep deprivation in the synagogue, as well as misery in the face of all my errors in judgment. I sat next to a lady in a beige straw hat and, of course, a matching beige suit and matching heels. I wasn’t in the mood for gossip or other shul niceties.
But then it started.
“Are you a visitor? ”
Reluctantly, âYes. ”
âI live in Israel.
Please no more, I prayed. Just let me sit here in my own super drama. “Who 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 immediately tried to redeem myself. âI’m visiting the Levi-Cohens.
But she didn’t want it. She turned to me and said, “It was a conversation stop.”
I was struck by the fact that I had sinned. The real sin. Don’t light candles too late or eat dairy products too soon after meat. It was sin in its essence. It was three weeks before the summer vacation. How could I even think of praying for forgiveness?
Out of shame and compassion for both of us, I moved to a remote area with no one. But I kept an eye on her with the intention of rushing after the prayers and apologizing. I was ready to bow down if necessary. My clothes were a mess anyway. But then she was gone. Faded away. I asked the woman who was sitting next to her where the lady in beige had been. âShe left early. She has guests and came home early to get ready.
It was divine punishment. I wasn’t going to apologize to such a nice lady, who has friends and comes home early to get ready. I asked for the address of the lady in beige. âNo need,â she said. âI’m going for lunch. I can deliver your message. Not wanting to detain my hosts, and frankly not wanting to disclose my crime, I forwarded the message, intending to call right after Shabbat.
The shiur was indeed in the main shrine. I felt woefully under-equipped with open-toed sandals and a mismatched beret. And then she was there. The lady in beige. With her husband, she had come to attend my shiur. Within seconds, my mood changed. I was delighted 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 rushed over to her immediately after the shiur, taking no risk of her leaving. She was so graceful. She complimented the shiur, told me that she had received my message and accepted my apologies without fuss. Only then could I turn to others to answer questions.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her chatting with friends, not rushing to leave. So I went back and thanked her for accepting my apologies so graciously. âI don’t know how I could have faced Yamin Noraim if you hadn’t come today.
“I know,” she replied. “This is why I have come.”
“Is that what you came for ?!” I asked.
âYes,â she replied. âI understood from my friend how upset you were, so I decided to come to your shiur. I knew you would have a hard time with the Yamim NoraÃ¯m if I didn’t come. I don’t usually come to shiur on Shabbat afternoons.
I was speechless.
Fifty years of hearing shiurim about t’shuva and s’licha, and that was the pure essence of forgiveness – allowing another person, a complete stranger who had hurt you for no reason, to make amends. Thankfully, I thanked her for coming, for taking care of my soul.
I went home lighter, filling my suitcase with the gift from the lady in beige.PJC
Esther Orenstein Lapian is a teacher educator who teaches at the Schechter Institute and the Kerem Institute for Jewish Humanist Education. It first appeared on The Times of Israel.