It's always so unexpected. I usually hear the music just as I'm in the midst of a telephone interview, or frying schnitzel for Shabbos, and as much as I want to rush out of the house, I can't.
But this evening, I was lucky. I had just returned home from some errands and was planning to run out to do some shopping for Shabbos when I heard the loud rhythmic music of a hachnasas sefer Torah. Only the tunes were different. No Toras Hashem Temimah, or Mah Ahavti Torasecha, but Sefardi songs that I was unfamiliar with.
I grabbed my shopping bag and raced out of the house in the direction of the music. And then I saw it, the large sefer Torah encased in a silver case, held aloft, swaying up and down to the beat of the music.
But this hachnasas sefer Torah was different. No shtreimels or rabbinical frocks. The men – barely a minyan - were clad in blue jeans and sandals, with small, white satin kippot perched awkwardly on their heads. Many of the women wore yoga pants, their stockingless feet pushed uncomfortably into sandals, their dyed, dirty-blonde, lifeless hair swaying in time to the music. As the music grew louder and the beat faster, some of the women started waving their hands in the air, others began rhythmically clapping. The small group, escorted by several police cars and armed guards, weaved its way through the crowded street. Busses stopped, traffic was backed up as more and more people — chassidim, yeshivah bachurim, American tourists — joined the procession, lichvod haTorah, in honor of the Torah.
Before my very eyes, the procession grew until it covered almost half a city block. The men held hands and danced in unity, a rainbow of Klal Yisrael, proclaiming through their actions their love of Hashem and His Torah.
A few days later I was invited to speak to a group of medical professionals about the unique challenges facing Orthodox Parkinson's patients in Israel. I arrived early and was told to wait in the secretary’s office until the meeting began. I nodded at the secretary as I entered her domain, but she was too engrossed in what she was reading to acknowledge my presence.
By her obviously dyed auburn hair, long, red nails, dark plaid pants and sweater, I assumed the book on her lap was either a novel or a woman’s magazine (not Binah). After a few minutes of completely ignoring my presence (How rude! Doesn’t she see that I – capital I – had arrived?!) she looked up from her book, smiled warmly at me, and, in a loud voice began reciting the tefillah for cholim that is said at the conclusion of Tehillim, followed by a long list of names. When I responded “Amen,” she stood up, kissed the sefer Tehillim and gently placed it back on the shelf behind her.
“Sorry that I wasn’t able to greet you properly.” She was apologizing to me! After how I'd judged her! “I like to take advantage of my break to pray for the doctor’s patients.” I was feeling smaller by the moment (Forget the capital I. Now I wasn’t even a dot!).
I’m not about to propose that clothes are not important. Proper dress is informed by halachah. How we dress is a fundamental statement to the people around us, and to ourselves, of where we align ourselves, of our basic belief system, of who we aspire to be. But it’s not the only thing.
I’m over sixty (gulp. Actually, last Shabbos my grandchildren were discussing my age. One was positive that I’m “at least a thousand years old,” while the other was sure I must be over 90), and by now I really should know that we can’t judge a book by its cover (oh, I HATE clichés!). But I’m human, and I usually do.
I know this is the wrong season to talk about how Chazal compare a pomegranate bursting with seeds to the simple man-on-the-street Jew, overflowing with love of Hashem and His mitzvos. But although I’m considered a senior citizen, I still have a lot to learn. And one thing I have to remember is that first impressions are just that; that I need to be open to look beyond the mask, to find the golden seeds within the pomegranate, even when (or perhaps I should write, “especially when”) that mask is my own.