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An Unexpected Messenger on Shabbat

An Unexpected Messenger on Shabbat

I walked to Jerusalem's Ben Yehuda Street toward the end of Shabbat, thinking that I was going to wait on a park bench until Shabbat ended and the stores opened, in order to try to buy a Spiderman kippah for our son. (I should've just bought one in Tzfat when I first saw them; I haven't been able to find one anywhere else!) I did stay on a park bench for quite a while, and waited until well after nightfall, and the kippah stores did not open, and finally I walked back to the Old City and treated myself to one last Jerusalem dinner (kibbeh, pita, and hummus, salatim, and a slushy, mint-flecked lemonade - glorious).

But I did have an encounter on Ben Yehuda that may have been the real reason that I was there.

I was sitting on the park bench, thinking about my trip and thinking about home, when a man in a dark suit wearing a black hat stopped to ask me something in Hebrew. I answered, he thanked me, and he moved on. A few minutes later, he was back - and he asked if he could talk with me. I was initially a bit reluctant, but there was something about him that felt safe to me, so I acquiesced. He said (in Hebrew) that he sensed I was sad and that his heart felt a connection to me, that he wanted to urge me to cultivate joy. This sounds corny, doesn't it? But my instincts told me that this guy was OK, and I am never one to turn down a spontaneous spiritual encounter.

He asked if I pray, and I said that I do indeed. Then he asked if he could recite a psalm for me or with me. I suggested Psalm 126, which I know by heart, and we recited it together. There was something extraordinary about saying those words - that ancient psalmist's expression of joy at returning to Zion - in this place. Then he offered Psalm 122, and we prayed that one together, too.

I lift my eyes up to the mountains. From where comes my help? My help comes from the Holy Blessed One, creator of heaven and earth!

It's another one of my favorites.

He asked if I would tell him what had been on my mind. I said that I was thinking about my son, who is far away. He told me about his eight children and grandchildren, and about his son, Noam, who was born with encephalitis - "water on the brain" - who died 15 months ago at the age of 20. I offered him the traditional words of consolation, and he clasped my hands and blessed me. He told me about the nonprofit he now runs, which provides free meals for the poor, and which is named in his son's memory, that the merit from the good deed might accrue on his son's behalf.

We smiled at each other. He told me that he is an Orthodox rabbi named Yitzchak; I told him that my name is Rachel, and he called me his sister. He expressed some surprise at my Hebrew and my fluency with the psalms, and asked what I do. I told him that I am a poet and a mother - a partial truth. I didn't have the sense, in that moment, that he would respond well to hearing that I am a rabbi, so I left that part out. He blessed me that I should have joy in my writing and joy in my son. "Teach your son to love everyone," he advised me, solemnly. "That is the most important thing." He blessed me again, and I thanked him from the bottom of my heart.

I didn't get the kippah I was hoping to find, but I did get a blessing - several blessings, really. Perhaps the friendly man in the black hat was an angel, a messenger, stopping in to remind me to serve God with love and with joy.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat was ordained by ALEPH in 2011. She is the author of 70 Faces (Phoenicia, 2011), a collection of Torah poems, and serves Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, MA.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
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