“Quiet!” I yelled in the middle of the supermarket parking lot. My children froze. “I’m sick and tired of all your complaining!” I continued, after surreptitiously glancing left and right to make sure I didn’t have an audience, my decibel level still very robust.
My son looked at me, his face suddenly mellowed by surprise as he straddled his bike in the middle of the parking lot. My two other children that were with me kept their eyes peeled to the asphalt. In the background I heard the squeak of a shopping cart. I didn’t even want to turn around to see some smartly dressed woman with her angelic entourage in tow, or some beaming father holding on to his son’s hand as they crossed the parking lot. What would they think of me?
No, I wanted to tell whoever it is that is witnessing this scene. You’ve got it all wrong.
You see, we were at the tippy end of an idyllic vacation in Moshav Mattityahu, a pastoral and family friendly community in the middle of Israel. The mostly deserted streets were lined by verdant lawns, quaint cottages set back from the road and bikes strewn through the front yards like tossed candy wrappers.
We had come with our family for three nights. In the sultry mornings we had flipped on the air conditioner and stayed put, playing Rummikub and War and snacking on forbidden sugar cereals. In the afternoons we cooled down with swimming or boating. And in the evenings we barbecued on our porch, the older children fanning the flames while the younger ones slathered their hot dogs with ketchup and bit into half cooked French fries.
At least that’s the way the kids would describe it. If you read between the lines, in the sultry mornings the kids bickered and fought over sugar cereal portions they were not used to eating. In the afternoons the kids fought as they baked in the sun while we walked to the swimming pool (why can’t we just take a taxi like all the normal families do??) In the evenings the little ones clamored to fan the barbecue flames while the older ones told me how ridiculous it was that I’d put the barbecue sauce on the kebobs before we put them on the grill.
But I knew my children wouldn’t remember it that way, and neither would I. Because packed in between the soccer balls, the inner tubes and the bicycles, I had stuffed our suitcases with whopping doses of patience. So I had managed to ignore the bickering. And I had risen above the insulting comments to this family my husband and I worked so hard to cultivate. I had settled the barbecue fights as amicably as possible. And a good time was had by all.
If you saw me these last three days you’d get a totally different picture.
And now, in the very last moments of the vacation, we couldn’t find the bus stop where we were meant to meet my husband and the rest of the kids. And as the sun massaged our scalps and I ran after my children on their bikes to reach the bus stop, the complaining struck a dissonant chord.
“Who takes two busses home from a vacation when they have three bikes with them?”
“Do you know how hot I am?”
“You said we were taking a taxi and then you changed your mind. That’s just so unfair!”
And so, sweat pooling in the folds of my neck, for 15 seconds or less, I had lost it.
Don’t judge me for my one moment of weakness, my mind pled with the passerby with the shopping cart. If you saw me these last three days you’d get a totally different picture. Really! I was the picture of patience and serenity!
And right there, in the parking lot, a memory suddenly emerged in my mind.
It was two years ago and my husband and I were on our way back from a 48 hour trip to Haifa on our own. We waited at the bus stop, the breezy March air whispering hints of spring in my ear. The distant hills outlined the blue sky like a golden magic marker. And then I saw her. That woman! Mrs. B! The one that had given that lecture I’d attended some years back. Oh how I’d admired her! She had a PhD in psychology as well as a vast storehouse of Torah literature at her fingertips. And now she was here! And she was sitting with her husband. What a great opportunity to approach such a busy woman as we both idled our time at the bus stop.
But something stopped me. A scratchiness in her voice. And then I noticed her husband, in a wheelchair, hands splayed awkwardly in his lap like pick-up sticks. Oh right. I had heard that she cared for her disabled husband. It had been that way for decades. What an incredible woman! But still, something held me back.
“You know what?” I heard her saying, her voice harsh. “Fine! You don’t want to go, don’t go. I don’t know what to tell you. You want to ruin this trip for me? Is that what you want? I don’t even care anymore.”
Her poor husband stammered an excuse, but she did not appear to be listening. She turned her body away from him slightly, her posture exuding hostility.
I was aghast. This woman that passed herself off as someone people could venerate was really a witch in disguise! Was this how she cared so ‘selflessly’ for her disabled husband? In one instant, I lost all respect for her. I did not approach her. And for years afterwards, when her name appeared on the lecture circuit, I grimaced. What could anyone learn from someone like her?
And suddenly, now, here in this grimy old parking lot, I remembered Mrs. B. Mrs. B., who perhaps, like me, had reached the end of her rope. Mrs. B. who devotedly took care of her husband day in and out for so many years. Mrs. B. who may have shelved scores of personal dreams and aspirations in favor of caring for the man that she loved.
I conjured up her face now.
Please don’t judge me for my moment of weakness, she pleaded with me.
Can we honestly ask God to extend a common decency that we can’t muster on our own?
On Rosh Hashanah, God judges each and every one of us. Do we want to be judged for our moments of weakness and despair? Or do we want to be looked at globally, with a focus on our strengths? And if we beseech God to bypass our moments of failure, then doesn’t our fellow man deserve the same courtesy? Can we honestly ask God to extend a common decency to us that we can’t muster up on our own?
I pictured Mrs. B’s face in my mind, her words dangling in the oppressive air.
I’m only human. Please don’t judge me.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” I whispered softly. Then I smiled at my children and directed them towards the bus stop.