A Western Wall fable

The earth is the Lord's - and have a truly good time.

kotel western wall 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
kotel western wall 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Just outside the Dung Gate at the southern end of the Western Wall plaza is a small trinket shop. Selling beads, souvenirs, T-shirts, postcards, soft drinks, tourist jewelry, cigarettes, it is typical and nondescript - except for two large adjoining signs on its roof. One is in Hebrew, and attached to it is an English sign, each with red letters five inches high. The Hebrew is from Psalm 24:1 - LaShem ha'aretz umeloa, tevel v'yoshevei va which means, "The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof, the universe and all who dwell in it." The English one says simply: HAVE A GOOD TIME! - which, to say the least, is a rather free translation of the Hebrew. Well, perhaps it wasn't supposed to be a translation. But it certainly was an odd juxtaposition. With messages poles apart, why were they placed one beside the other? Was there some connection between them? The entire scene struck me as both absurd and bizarre. If the merchant wants to attract Israelis into his shop, why preach a biblical message that would sooner bring them into a synagogue? Why would a shop owner trying to earn a few shekels choose to dampen customers' enthusiasm by reminding them that everything belongs not to them but to God? A noble thought, but not quite what they teach in business school. And if his sales targets are the Anglos, then "have a good time" is also inappropriate. Because even among the thousands of tourists with their sunglasses and cameras, there is surely a realization that they are visiting the most sacred site of Judaism, a place of a million tears and ten million sighs. Some of them may even have felt a sense of awe as they gazed at this last vestige of the Holy Temple. The more religious among them - made aware that according to Jewish tradition, God's heavenly abode is directly above this wall - might even have uttered a prayer, or inscribed their innermost longings on slips of paper and inserted them between the massive stones. Would not importunings to have a good time strike them as incongruous, if not downright tasteless? "The Earth Is The Lord's - and Have A Good Time" is on the surface a ludicrous pairing, an odd couple whose marriage was not made in heaven. But this is Jerusalem, where nothing is what it appears to be on the surface. Surely there must be concealed here some mysterious message, perhaps some Hegelian reincarnation of thesis-antithesis contradictions resulting in a synthesis of reconciliation? Or was I transforming a simple sign into Mount Sinai? THERE WAS more here than meets the eye, and this obviously required serious meditation. I riveted my eyes upon the signs and concentrated deeply. (The many passersby, convinced that I was trying to determine what to buy, were of course completely oblivious to the profound considerations that lay behind my gaze.) My efforts were quickly rewarded, for immediately a question entered my mind. Was our text a commandment to have a good time, as in "Thou shalt have a good time"? Or was it a promise that some day in the distant future we will have a good time? Soon another question materialized: exactly who - or is it a Who? - is issuing the command or making the promise? A sign so close to the Western Wall must contain a deeper meaning. Was this emanating from a Higher Power? Or was it perhaps Satan tempting us to go out and have a good time? Ah, but what precisely is meant by a "good time"? For Haim, studying a page of Talmud might be a good time, which Barak might consider a bore; while for Barak, watching a football game is a good time - which Haim would deem a terrible waste. Obviously the signs required some interpretation, but there was no Rashi attached to them, no explanatory commentaries. I continued my intense contemplation. Like a bolt from above, the connection burst across my mind. If you truly believe that "the earth is the Lord's," then the time you spend on His earth will be good. You will have, in the deepest meaning of the term, a truly good time. It is both command and promise. And the good time it refers to is what the Psalmist defines in 73:28: "closeness to God is for me good…." Of course! How could I have missed it? The connection is profound yet obvious. The shop owner is clearly a religious genius with a subtle mind, a modern sage whose every syllable bears careful analysis. I continued my meditation, for I sensed that, as in all great ideas, there must be another level to this brilliant juxtaposition. I was not disappointed. The two signs represent two opposing philosophies: the Western worldview that life's goal is to have a good time vs the Judaic view that life's goal is to acknowledge that there is a Sovereign above us. Our task is to choose one path. The clarity of it all was striking. The clouds had parted and I was privileged to see the pellucid logic and brilliant symmetry behind these twin signs. I had to meet the amazing man who owned this shop. I purchased a few postcards, and engaged him in casual banter. He did not look like a religious genius, and apparently had even taken pains to look like an ordinary Arab. But he couldn't deceive me. I can recognize a religious sage when I see one, despite his carefully arranged disguises. I REMARKED that his signs were fascinating. "Ah," he whispered, "the signs. The English one is sort of clever, is it not? It's a catchy way to sell these Time cigarettes that are so popular here: Have a good Time. Would you like to try one?" Clearly, he was trying to stonewall me. Reticence is a well-known characteristic of truly holy men. I asked him about that Hebrew verse from Psalms. "Oh, is that from the Psalms? I had no idea. Anyway, I didn't want just an English sign, so I asked a Jewish sign-maker to make me a Hebrew one as well. I told him to use any wording he wanted. This is what he brought me. I never quite understood its connection with the English sign, but I don't understand a lot of things, so I just put them up together." It was obvious that he was dissembling. Saintly people never let on who they really are. But he met all the classic criteria of a holy man - concealment, humility, feigned ignorance, physical and intellectual disguise. I was not fooled. I had inadvertently uncovered a numinous personality and his powerful religious message. All of which demonstrates that it is always important to probe beneath the surface, because you never know what you'll find. Some things are more than meet the eye, and some are less. The writer, a resident of Jerusalem, served as rabbi in Atlanta for 40 years, and is former editor of Tradition magazine. His most recent book is Biblical Questions and Explorations.