(By Zahava Pinsker)
I’ve been told, more than once, the story of two holocaust survivors, one very religious and one not at all. The latter said to his friend, “We went through the same hell, you saw the same horrors that I did, yet you somehow remain faithful to G-d. I knew a man in the camp who had a siddur and every day he made people forfeit their small portions of bread to simply read from his siddur and talk to G-d for a few minutes. After that, I could no longer believe.” The religious man responded, “You see this one nasty man, but you overlook the countless Jews willing to sacrifice the little sustenance they had in order to speak with Hashem.”
I was recently in Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, sitting on a curb and enjoying the sun while my friend ran into a store to make a few copies. I was in high spirits as I watched little children proudly donning colorful Purim costumes. That’s when a chareidi looking man approached me. Without looking at me, he began yelling at me in Hebrew. I’m not stupid. I know he was upset with my clothing. But after glancing down and confirming that neither my knee-length denim skirt nor my three-quarter sleeved shirt had undergone any surgical operations and that both were still fully intact, I was satisfied with simply responding “Ani lo midaberet ivrit.” The man, however, either did not hear me or chose to ignore our language barrier and continued to scream at me while looking intently at the ground. I repeated several times that I did not understand Hebrew and finally, the man decided to say something that was understood in all countries: he spat at my feet.
As the color flooded through my cheeks, an entire essay of four-letter words raced from my brain to my throat. But, staring disgustedly at the glob of sun-tinted saliva at my shoe, I pressed my lips together, swallowed my pointless words, stood up, and purposefully crossed the street. While the man remained standing next to his own spit, either contemplating following me or unaware that I had left due to his insistence on looking at everyone and everything except for me, a young woman approached me.
I braced myself for more rebuke or perhaps even more sputum, when suddenly, her lips parted and a kind, concerned voice seeped out from between them. In broken English she asked if I was okay and began explaining that many closed-minded meah shearim residents had migrated to Ramat Bet Shemesh Bet in search of more living space and had brought their corrupt and highly questionable methodology with them. She apologized profusely on behalf of the neighborhood and proceeded to tell me a story in which a house was broken into and trashed simply because its inhabiting family owned a television.
Then she asked me about myself. I told her that a religious thirst had brought me to Neve Yerushalayim, where I began working on a number of mitzvot, a very personally prevalent one being modesty. Compassion filled her eyes as she looked me up and down and said, “It must be so discouraging. You’re wearing a skirt and long sleeves. You probably felt so good and then a man spits on you!” I smiled and told her that we all have areas in which we could use improvement, that man’s clearly being vi’ahavta lireacha kamocha.
While I, in no way, intend to undermine modesty, I must point out that the mitzvah oftznuah is only hinted to in the written torah, yet the commandment to love your fellow man is explicitly stated.
She shook her head in shame and disappointment, made sure I was alright a couple of dozen times, and then explained to me that these extremists are a minority and I should not let them get me down. She wished me a happy Purim and walked, with a sympathetic smile, out of my life.
As I began searching for my friend, eager to avoid another amateur mussar session, I thought about the two ways in which I could walk away from this experience. I could concentrate on the man who spat on me, the man who made people give up their food for a few minutes with his siddur, or I could focus on the woman, the stranger, who, despite having no obligations towards me, took twenty minutes out of her busy erev shabbat to soothe and comfort me.
For every one man demanding bread from the hungry, perverting the mitzvot with his narrow mind, there will always be a line of people, willing to go hungry for a little longer, just to have a moment with G-d.