Following the signs home
By: Rabbi Dr David Fox
On a trip to Jerusalem in the mid-1980s, I joined a celebration held by relatives in a small hotel. It was a little off the beaten path and when Friday afternoon neared a dusky close, I decided that I would find my way to the Kotel for Shabbos services. In those days, most of the city was safe for strolling pedestrians and I had always loved the walk of contrasts through the “Arab Shuk” as I passed through an old-world atmosphere of spice and shadows, making my way to the light and splendour of the Old City.
However, this particular Friday afternoon I was less oriented and not familiar with the neighbourhood. Nonetheless, I decided to trek through the dwindling street crowds as the Jewish nation prepared for its day of rest. I approached a man in the street, clearly a secular Israeli in his thirties, and asked him for directions to the Kotel.
“It’s really not too far. Let me give you directions…,” he began, then, as if responding to some silent personal message in his mind, he nodded, shrugged, and said, “I will walk with you. It’s been a long while since I have been to the Kotel, and it’s going to be Shabbat. Let’s walk there together.”
Usually, when someone offers me a favour and is overextending himself, I tend to decline, assuring that person that it’s okay and asking them not to trouble themselves. This time, as if responding to some silent personal message in my own mind, I said simply, “Todah.”
We walked through the warrens and the byways of a city preparing to slow down for the evening. He made small talk, asking me where I was from, telling me a little about himself, but decidedly staying in the almost meditative spirit of one preparing for a sacred encounter or for prayer. Before long, we had walked past some ruins which he told me were known as “Solomon’s Stables” and we soon picked up some increasing pedestrian throngs funnelling through the Shuk as we neared the Kotel.
At a certain point, the man reached into his pants pocket and, to my surprise, out came a small kipa. He put it on, remarking that it had been a long time since he had worn this religious head covering, but at that moment, it seemed right and important to do so. So, me in my dark suit and black hat, he in his casual clothing and small kipa, walked along as if we were two old friends, enjoying the sunset sky and the cool breeze as we approached our fabled and sacred destination.
Once we neared the Wall itself and located a small minyan about to commence the afternoon prayers, we both retreated into our silent inner space, intent on capturing the sanctity of the spot and the timeless beauty of the moment. Each of us was probably lost in prayer, both of us making our statements to the One Above and asking for whatever Divine blessings we were seeking at that time. As the next set of psalms, Welcoming the Shabbos (Kabbalat Shabbat), turned from chanting into song, the man remained at my side. Finally, as the sky grew dark and the many praying people began to fade away into the distant beckoning of warm stone dwellings and candle-lit rooms, we faced each other.
“Thank you for showing me the way,” I offered.
“No, thank you for giving me a chance to find my way back,” he said. “I have never really been too religious, but I thought about this. Here you are, an American, clearly educated and familiar with the ways of the world, yet you came to Jerusalem so that you could pray at the Kotel. And here I am, a man of Jerusalem, with the Kotel right in my own town…certainly I need to start going there too. So, thank you. I have been carrying a kipa in my pocket for a very long time, just waiting for some sign, some sign about what I should do with my life. You were the sign that I have waited for, even though I did not know it. So, thank you. I need to begin coming here, at least to start the Shabbat, and I am going to bring Shabbat back into my home.”
I never saw him again, and have no idea who he was, or even his name. But, wherever he is, I wish him Shabbat Shalom.