For my wife Shana, what started as a tiny spark deep inside her soul eventually grew into a brilliant light guiding her forward on life’s journey.
Each one of has this spark inside us, a yearning to connect to our traditions. The Torah portion of Vayikra begins with the words, “And He (G-d) Called to Moses.” In the word “Vayikra – And He called,” the last letter Aleph is written uncharacteristically small. The 18th century Chassidic leader Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twersky of Chernobyl in his book Meor Einayim writes that the small Aleph represents G-d, who places a small piece of Himself inside every Jew.
This tiny divine spark constantly calls to us to grow in our observance. The call starts out quiet, almost inaudible. But if someone hears it and responds, G-d embraces him with open arms, just as the second half of the verse says: “and Hashem spoke to him.” When Shana responded to the spark, Hashem spoke to her by showering goodness on her.
Shana grew up in Queens in a traditional household, which meant going to synagogue every Saturday morning, and then out to eat treif for lunch.
But even at an early age something was already stirring inside her. She felt a strong bond with the observant principal and teachers in her Conservative Hebrew School, hanging around them soaking up their stories. To her, religious Jews seemed to be on a higher level. Even at such a young age, her desire to connect with religious Jews was so strong that she would dress up in a long skirt and long sleeves whenever she went shopping in the local Orthodox community. No matter how hot the weather, there she would be in her sweater.
When she was 13 and a religious teacher invited the entire class to her house for Shabbas, Shana alone jumped at the chance and spent a beautiful Shabbas with the teacher and her parents.
Shana’s own parents worked long hours, so eating together was a rarity. But this first Shabbas showed Shana that achieving this was within her reach.
Then came the accident.
One rainy Sunday, Shana and her parents stopped at a restaurant so her mother Elaine could make a call on a payphone. As she was about to cross the street to get back into the car, a drunk driver took a curve too fast, jumped the curb and slammed into her mother on the sidewalk. Elaine’s body was thrown 15 feet.
When Shana saw her mother’s distorted body, she said the Shema because it was the only thing she knew. She also made a deal with G-d that if He saved her mother, she would become more observant.
G-d heard her prayers. Inside the restaurant at that very moment was a group of paramedics eating lunch. They immediately ran out and started treating her before the ambulance arrived.
Elaine suffered 12 broken bones and brain trauma and was in a coma for several days. It was a long uphill battle to a full recovery.
For Shana, the commitment she made with G-d solidified her desire to grow in her observance, but to where? She didn’t know how to be observant. So for the next few years during high school she started making whatever small changes she knew about, such as using two sets of dishes at home.
Things picked up in college. As the Rabbis teach, “In the way a man wants to go, Heaven helps him.” (Chullin 7b) On her first day at the University of Michigan, Shana met Naomi, who lived across the hall. Naomi was Orthodox and grew up near the University. On Shana’s first Shabbas in college Naomi invited Shana to go with her to the local Orthodox services on campus, and to her family’s house for Shabbas lunch.
From then on, Shana spent every Shabbas and holiday either at Naomi’s house or one of the other Orthodox families near campus. She began devouring Jewish books and taking courses, and after four years was solidly on the path to being an observant Jew.
Throughout college she worked hard to achieve her other lifelong dream of becoming a doctor. She had a perfect application, a high grade point average, strong performance on her MCATs and research experience.
She was rejected from all 38 medical schools she applied to.
At the last minute she applied to a couple of overseas programs, and in the end was accepted into three programs, all of which happened to be in Israel. So she figured that G-d wanted her to be there, and it proved to be the ideal place to cement her religious commitment.
A few weeks before she left, Shana and I met and we immediately knew we had found our basherts. I had wanted to go to yeshiva in Israel after college, and Shana’s imminent departure to Israel was a perfect excuse to go.
G-d sent one more messenger for Shana after she arrived in Israel. During orientation Shana met Michelle Weissman, who was from New York, was frum from birth and would eventually become her roommate and inseparable bosom buddy. Until that point, almost everything Shana knew about living a Jewish life she learned from books, and living with Michelle brought it down to the practical everyday level.
After we got married and Shana finished medical school, we moved back to NY. Michelle’s parents quickly adopted us as their long lost children and incorporated us into all their family gatherings. The impact of such kindness on a ba’al teshuva cannot be overstated. People who return to Judaism often lack the family and social structure necessary to live and grow as religious Jews, so for someone to adopt them and host them for holidays is essential.
Each of the people and events mentioned here entered Shana’s life at exactly the right moment. This was not a coincidence. It was the hand of G-d. If we take the first steps, G-d will guide us on the rest of the journey.
Originally Published May 14, 2007