As a young college student, I served as Shamash in the Jewish Theological Seminary Synagogue. My first assignment was to coordinate services for Tisha B’Av, the fast day recalling destruction of the Temple. I prepared thoroughly, familiarizing myself with all the day’s liturgical procedures and customs.

Except one.

I was unaware of the practice of removing the decorative curtain from the Ark as an expression of mourning and austerity. First to arrive for morning services, I found the Ark curtain shunted to the side. Fearing vandals had harmed the Torah Scrolls, I rushed to the Ark, threw open the doors… and found everything in order. I replaced the curtain, left the chapel, and returned several minutes later. The Ark was again uncovered. I repeated my misguided investigation, adjusted the curtain, and, as before, left the chapel.

Upon my return, I encountered a senior Talmud Professor: “Joe, have you seen anyone suspicious here this morning?! Someone keeps putting the curtain back on the Ark!” Suddenly realizing the root of my error, I replied truthfully, “I haven’t seen anyone. But I’ll stay here… and I guarantee: it won’t happen again!!” A narrow escape from abject humiliation!

When a simple aspect of Jewish observance is so unfamiliar as to be unrecognizable… it is indeed a day for Lamentation.

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