I don't know who she was or what she looked like. But I will always remember the sound of her cry.
I spent hours this Tisha B'Av morning sitting in the front right corner of the men's side at the Kotel (Western Wall). As I rested my back against the mechitza (the partition between the men and women's sides) leaning against the wall, I recited the poems lamenting the destruction of the Temple, read some other related materials, and observed the masses of people who came to pray and touch the wall.
Suddenly, from right behind me on the other side of the partition, a woman began to sob. The sobbing built into a crescendo of wailing like I have never heard before at any prayer service or gathering. Was she a grandmother crying for the wellbeing of her grandchildren? Was she a middle aged mother pleading for her child to find a partner for marriage? Was she a younger woman unable to conceive a child? Was she the sister of a soldier killed in the IDF or a child of someone killed in a terror attack? I do not know. I did not turn around to look and her identity will forever remain a mystery to me.
But within her cries sitting on the floor right in front of the Kotel on the ninth of Av, I heard the collective cry of the Jewish people in modern times. I heard the cries of Holocaust survivors, I heard the cries of the thousands of Jewish mothers who lost sons and daughters during their service in the Israeli Defense Forces and in terror attacks, I heard the cries of Aviva Shalit, and I heard the cries of everyone who simply struggles with the challenges of life on a day to day basis.
Seeing Jews from all walks of life and backgrounds approaching the Kotel, these cries infused me with hope.
At first I was plunged into sadness and anguish over the sound of her wailing. And for the first time that I can recall, I shed some tears on Tisha B'Av. But then as I began to think about it some more, against the backdrop of seeing Jews from all walks of life and backgrounds approaching the Kotel for prayer, a kiss, or to insert a note, these cries actually infused me with hope. Her sobs became music to my ears.
I was reminded of the story about Napoleon who saw Jews praying and weeping on the floor in a Paris synagogue. He asked his aide for an explanation, and upon hearing that they were mourning over the loss of their Temple which was destroyed 1,800 years earlier, Napoleon remarked that these are a people who could expect to experience salvation one day.
The woman's cries reminded me that despite all of our suffering we have not completely lost our relationship with God, setting the stage for an eventual complete reunion. The fact that this Jewish woman was sobbing freely on the floor of the Western Wall, in the heart of Jerusalem's Old City in our homeland, demonstrates that despite all we have been through collectively we are on our way back to our former glory. Seeing non-observant, traditional, Orthodox, and ultra-orthodox Jews, born in Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Ethiopia, North Africa, North America, and Israel converging on the Western Wall to mourn, with the sound of her crying in the background, demonstrated that her cries – and those of the Jewish people throughout the generations – are bearing fruit. There is real light at the end of the tunnel.
This coming Shabbat's Haftora captures God comforting the Jewish people after the destruction and promising that the time will come when our special relationship with the Divine will be completely restored. Through the cries of that mystery woman I already heard that message loud and clear, on Tisha b'Av itself.