Thursday, February 21, 2019 -
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‘Five minutes’ with M

I prayed an unexpected mincha prayer on Yom Kippur. When the musaf service concluded I left the yeshiva in the Jewish quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem to be still and contemplate a bit for the duration of the brief break until prayers resumed with the afternoon mincha service.

As I was sitting on a stone bench, with the Jerusalem sun strong on my face, something like an apparition appeared before me. My good friend, my truly holy and very spiritual friend, M, was standing before me. I was quite excited. Greeting her warmly, I was surprised by her silence. For a moment I was perplexed — then I understood.

She wasn’t speaking on Yom Kippur.

Such a holy day — she wanted her lips to be in full worship of G-d. Nothing else.

The next thing I know she was waving to me to join her. I was not exactly sure where she was going or what joining her meant. So I proceeded to guess and name some possibilities, knowing the places she tends to spend time praying at. To no avail.

Finally M leafs through her prayer book and points to the words “Rabbi Shimon.” Rabbi Shimon? She was apparently proceeding to the mincha prayer of a certain Rabbi Shimon.

For a brief moment I was confused. Ah . . . then I remembered. M often prays at the graves of holy people, of tzaddikim.

I turned to her and said, “the grave of Rabbi Shimon?” She nodded in the affirmative.

I asked her whether it was in the Old City because, I explained, I wanted to be back at the yeshiva for the final Yom Kippur prayer, ne’ilah.

She nodded and hurried me along, putting up the palm of her hand to my face with her five fingers spread out, communicating to me it’s a five minute walk away. OK. I could do this. What an opportunity!

To pray on Yom Kippur at the grave of a holy tzaddik who served the Jewish people as High Priest for 40 years — famous for being the last of the legitimate High Priests before corruption of the priesthood in temple times began to spread — and to think, how the service of the High Priest is such an essential part of the Yom Kippur davening. This seemed like a real Jerusalem Yom Kippur turn of events.

It is always some kind of new spiritual experience for me when it involves my friend M.

We began walking, M with the book of Psalms spread open before her face, as she murmured psalms quite loudly. She turned here, there, and I followed dutifully. Before I knew it we were in the Arab market, which is not safe for Jews. It’s been years for me since I’ve been here. I asked her about it, and I suppose she sensed my apprehension. Her response? M begins loudly chanting verses from Psalms about faith in G-d . . .

I tried not to look the Arabs in the eye too much. Just kept walking and sensed both the specialness and wackiness of this moment. I stood up a bit straighter now as we continued walking through the Arab market.

Fifteen minutes later we were way past Jaffa Gate entering the old religious neighborhood of Shivtei Yisrael. I asked her how much longer it would be. Her open palm went up again. Five fingers. Five minutes. We kept walking. Me in silence and M chanting the psalms.

At one point she pointed to the book of Psalms and grunted, gently rebuking me for walking so calmly and not praying.

I responded that I was praying in my thoughts, silently, as we walked along.

She nodded from side to side indicating I was wrong on that one, and that there is no such thing. We kept walking.

When we reached what is called Road One, I knew there was only one place to go from here. Ah . . . her words “the Old City” as a response to my query came back to me. We were still in the Old City all right. It just never occurred to me to ask which part of the Old City. Road One divides East Jerusalem from West Jerusalem. So I was walking to East Jerusalem, that part of the Old City. Just the two of us, past Arab neighborhoods. Now I understood where we were going.

At least 20 minutes into the walk I asked her again how far off Rabbi Shimon’s gravesite was. This time eight fingers went up. So it’s about eight minutes away.

We crossed into East Jerusalem, officially on the other side of the green line. There were Arabs all round us. M is chanting the psalms and doesn’t really see her way. I don’t know where we are going, but somehow I am leading.

Finally, in the distance, I see a sign for the grave of Shimon Hatzaddik, Simeon the Righteous, in the middle of a lone road.

We are now past the hotels and entering an area thick with an Arab population. Throughout the entire walk we are the only Jews. M is unfazed. She even raises her voice at one point and calls out “shfoch chamatcha al ha-goyim.” She is fearless. The truth is, I feel pretty calm.

As we get closer I am mentally preparing myself for the amount of time I would have to pray at the gravesite. Obviously the walk took longer than I planned — so perhaps I would just say a Psalm or two there on this lone road at the sign before walking back to make it in time for the final Yom Kippur prayers in the Jewish quarter. A Psalm or two, here on Yom Kippur is special enough for me, I thought.

As we neared the sign on the road I pulled out my prayer book, ready to murmur the Psalms, when M laughed and pointed down the road. I followed her and we turned a corner. M parted a large white cloth and motioned for me to bend over and take a look. Suddenly, before me in an underground cave, was a quorum of men, and a few payos-clad children, all enveloped by pure white. A bonafide Yom Kippur davening was taking place.

The melodies, old traditional Jerusalem, the people . . . ethereal. And there I was, right in the cave with them. A mere half hour walk from the Jewish quarter and the hub of the city, I was transported to a different world.

It was all very calm and low key. This minyan was praying here like it was the most natural thing in the world. Across the street some Arab women were folding their laundry. Everything was fine. Neither group seemed fazed by the other.

I prayed mincha, with this minyan, in this cave of Rav Shimon Hatzaddik, the High Priest.

I could not stop thinking of how I was at a place where, in his lifetime, for 40 years in temple times, this high priest communicated with G-d directly, with the Ineffable Name embedded on his breastplate, on which Hebrew letters would light up to form words and sentences of meaning as a response to queries from the Jewish people. Here I was at the closest place on earth that is connected to his spirit, which came into such close contact with the Divine presence.

Shimon Hatzaddik was one of the last surviving men of the Great Assembly. He stood at a crossroads of Jewish history as the person who lived through the period of the canonization of the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible, when there was still prophecy, bridging the era of the written Torah to the Rabbinic era, the transmission of the oral Torah.

It was a time of great upheaval for the Jewish people, with external threats from the Greeks and Assyrians, as well as internal strife between the Sadducees and the Pharisees.

One of the famous teachings of Shimon Hatzaddik is one that any first grader can tell you. Upon three things the world stands: Torah, service (prayer), and acts of kindness.

I also remembered the legendary meeting between Shimon Hatzaddik and Alexander the Great of Macedonia.

Alexander the Great was riding his horse, accompanied by his entourage, when Shimon Hatzaddik came out to greet his royal highness.

When Alexander the Great saw Shimon Hatzaddik he immediately descended from his carriage and prostrated himself. He then turned to his perplexed soldiers and explained that when he goes out to battle it is a vision of this very man whom he sees leading him to victory.

And so it was, that I had the privilege to pray mincha on Yom Kippur in Jerusalem this year with my friend M, and with Rav Shimon Hatzaddik.

P.S. I’ll save the story for the walk back to the Jewish quarter for another time. Yes, I did make it back in time for ne’ilah . . .

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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