The Fire Within Her

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

20 comments on “The Fire Within Her

  1. To David Schallheim, Michael Gros, et al –

    The matter is not as simple as you write.

    1) If you look up the verse (posuk in Iyyov) where the expression ‘cheilek Elokah mimaal’ comes from, you will see that it is not used in the sense you write.

    2) It is a matter of dispute among Rabbis. One Rav I spoke to told me that is kefirah to believe that everyone has ‘a piece of G-d’ inside them.

    3) I don’t see how the Zohar on Vayipach biapav nishmas chayim – man dinafach……backs you up here. What is says is that the posuk says that G-d blew into adam’s nostrils the breath of life and goes on to observe that one who blows, blows from within themselves.

    Now envision blowing up a balloon (perhaps the Zohar was envisioning glass blowing, but the idea would be the same). Are you blowing part of yourself into the balloon ? No, you are blowing air from your lungs, something external that was briefly within you, but is not instrinsically you. So too we can say with the neshama, the soul. G-d created it and blew it, so to speak (kivayachol) into man.

    We say in the beginning of davening every morning, Elokai, neshama shenosato bi tehora hi (G-d, the soul that you put in me is pure). We continue, addressing Hashem, ‘ata virasa, ata yitzarta, ata nifachta bi…’ – you Hashem created the neshama, fashioned it and blew it into me. So we see that we say daily that Hashem created the neshama. It is a creation, not ‘a piece of Him’.

    4) Some say that they don’t mean it literally when saying ‘cheilek Elokah mimaal’, and perhaps that would be acceptable, but it’s still dangerously vulnerable to misinterpretation.

    5) Lubavitchers emphatically claim that it is to be meant literally.

  2. To Leah’s point about seeing Hashem’s hand guiding everything in my wife’s journey:

    All BTs, if they look deeply into their journeys, can also see Hashem’s hand in many places along the way. Hashem sends lots of messengers and hints to push us on our journeys, but we don’t always notice them.

  3. I agree with Michael’s comment yesterday. I can remember as clearly as possible my first NCSY events where I experienced Shabbos, Tefilah, Brachos , Birkas HaMazon ,where I bought my first Jewish oriented books ( RSRH’s The Nineteen Letters and Choreb),and a pair of tzitis like yesterday and where I met rabbis and advisors who could explain Torah in an articulate manner and show that a Torah based life had a compelling rationale in the US of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Such memories are the concrete of how, when, where, and why one undertakes the committmment to Torah observance, regardless of the environment.

  4. Regarding comments 15 and 12, I would suggest that leah read the book first and talk it over with her parents either as or after they read it. BT children probably has a good sense of how their parents will react or what their particular concerns are likely to be. In my family, and I imagine this is common, these types of conversations are not easy, and addressing parents’ particular concerns and attitudes would be helpful. Azriela’s book provides a springboard for conversation and some background, but is not a substitute for that conversation. Also, be prepared for strong emotions. My mom actually cried as she read the book. I think she felt like some of her feelings were being validated, and it was a very intense emotional experience confronting all of those feelings.

  5. Shalom Michael,

    That is a simply wonderful story and I got chills when you talked about experiences that obviously show Hashem’s hand in guiding everything.

    My husband tells me that his entire life has been very odd in that strange things happened to him all the time. I’ve seen it for myself since we were married four years ago.

    He came from a completely unobservant, unknowledgeable family yet he still found his path to teshuvah decades ago.

    He tells me that he has seen so many signs over the years of Hashem directing traffic, so to speak, that his emunah is unshakeable.

    I’m going to encourage him to tell his story about how he broke his leg in four places. Talk about chilling …

    It’s taken me years to begin to get a kernel of that feeling of Hashem being all around us, “moving us like chess pieces,” as Eliahu would say. But with practice and hard work, I’m beginning to make the connection between what happens in my life (the good and the bad) and Hashem controlling it all.

    I know the “bad stuff” just means I have much more refinement of my neshama ahead of me, and that I’m still in my toddler stages as a BT. Hoo boy, they held me back in Grade 1. ;-D

    But that’s why your story is so powerful, and I’m a little envious that Shana was able to feel such strong motivation and connection at such a young age to carry her forward.

    Yasher koach to you both, and may you have many blessings in your marriage and your careers.

    And may we all merit easier journeys, and that Hashem will light our way through his benevolence and love.

    Leah L.

  6. Regarding support for parents of BT’s – may I humbly recommend the book I authored, “What do you mean, you can’t eat in my home? A guide for how newly observant Jews and their lesser observant relatives can still get along”. It will help bt parents not only feel less alone, but help them understand where their bt is coming from, and how to resolve common points of contention. It is easily available in most online bookstores, such as barnes and noble. You are absolutely right — this is not only a painful and growing journey for the bt, but for their family as well. Hopefully, it can be gam zu letovah but that can take some work and time and many blessings from Hashem.

  7. Michael, great story. Thanks.

    Re: comment # 12-Leah
    Seek out people where you live (if available) who know where you’re coming from. Parents can old resentment for years and finding a path of Shalom is key!

  8. Thank you everyone for the insightful comments and responses. To address a few of the points:

    The pintele yid, the spark in all of us, is a well-establish concept, written about by the Sforno, Abarbanel and many others. The Alter Rebbe calls it “the Divine Soul which is truly a part of G-d.”

    Every Jew has this spark in him, placed there by OURSELVES when we all accepted the Torah at Har Sinai.

    To Bill47:
    It is indeed difficult to realize the spark exists in many people, and one of the most tremendous points about the spark is that it can survive even when ignored and give no nourishment. But even when it is completely trampled on, it is still alive, waiting to burst into a full flame.

    I’ve spoken to ba’alei teshuva who have cried the first time they’ve learned the Aleph Bet or put on tefillin. It’s illogical for them to do so, but it comes from the pintele yid finally being nourished.

    Sigmund Freud spent his entire life trying to disprove Judaism. No matter how many challenges he brought against it, he was never satisfied that he disproved it. Why? Because he could never completely silence his pintele yid. It was always egging him on, trying to get him to return, and he tried to silence it by constantly trying to disprove it.

    So even in a person who seems able to repress it, it’s still there. Have you ever been in a store, and a non-frum Jew you don’t know will come up to you and make some comment about Judaism just to let you know they’re Jewish? That’s because the spark in them wants so much to connect with Yiddishkeit and other Jews!

    To Mordechai:
    Indeed Judaism disagrees with any religion that says that G-d has a human form. But our neshama is completely spiritual! It’s a piece of the Divine in us that is constantly pushing us on to fulfill our mission in the world. As David Schallheim wrote, G-d breathed a bit of himself into each person.

    To ron mann:
    Yes, it is mind-boggling to believe, but plenty of people with perfect applications don’t get accepted to American medical schools. My wife’s medical school in Israel was full of very smart, capable and accomplished people who just couldn’t get into American medical schools.

    My wife even has a close relative who’s the president of a leading medical school who couldn’t help her get in! It really shows the hand of G-d and where He wanted her to be.

    To MG:
    Beautiful summary of what I was explaining in the story!

    To leah:
    You’re are completely correct. It’s essential to think about the parents of the ba’alei teshuva. When I was becoming frum, one of the Rabbis I was close with, Rabbi David Silverman of Atlanta, made himself available to my parents whenever they needed to talk about their concerns and feelings. It’s essential for everyone in kiruv to help smooth out issues that inevitably arise in the family.

    I don’t know of any organization per se that do this, but it’s something that they all need to think about.

  9. I know this isn’t the right place to post this but I’m not sure where to…It seems like there are is a lot of support and resources for BTs…ex this site, discussion groups etc. I got thinking, wondering if there is any type of support thing for parents of BTs? In a certain sense, I think my parents would like to know that there are others out there in similar situations, how they have dealt with their childrens choices, if they’ve come to terms with it or have been able to accept their child’s decisions, practical tips for keeping a pleasant relationship etc. Anyone heard of such a thing?

  10. My cousin graduated from UCLA, had good MCAT scores, tons of research experience at Cedars-Sinai (an excellent research hospital in LA) and he wasn’t accepted into any of his top choices for medical school.

    Top choices, maybe not. Top 38 …?

  11. Nice story but I don’t believe it.

    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.

    Simply not possible from someone who went to University of Michigan.

    What is so unbelievable? You think that everyone who graduates from a good undergraduate school and has good test scores gets into their first choice of graduate program? My cousin graduated from UCLA, had good MCAT scores, tons of research experience at Cedars-Sinai (an excellent research hospital in LA) and he wasn’t accepted into any of his top choices for medical school. Hashem’s influence aside, the thing about medical school and law school and MBA programs is that every candidate applying is above average and a large percentage of them are exemplary.

  12. Thank you for this story. I think that the best thing about it is that indicates, for those interested in the journey, a few elements helpful to the Tshuva Journey:
    1) Patience: Large changes take time, and are actually made up of many smaller changes.
    2) Role models: Having an image of who you want to be like can help to direct the path of the journey.
    3) Experience/Practice
    4) A ‘Teacher’: He or she can, amoung other things, ‘bring things down to the practical everyday level’.

    Stories that highlight points like these could be illuminating for those on all ends and sides of the journey. Hatzlacha rabba in finding those stories, bringing the points out, and spreading the light.

  13. Mordechai,

    I don’t see the theological problem, if we understand the statement (“G-d, who places a small piece of Himself inside every Jew”) in this light:

    “Elokim breathed into his nostrils a nishmas chaim (the breath of life)” (Bereishis 2:7), concerning which the Zohar (3:123b) says, “He breathed from within Himself.”

    Man’s soul is a part of God’s essence, as it were.

    The Ramban (Ibid.) refers to this as “chelek Elokah m’maal,” a part of God above.

    There are very good sources for the expression used, obviously meant, as Bob Miller said, in symbolic fashion.

  14. Nice story but I don’t believe it.

    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.

    Simply not possible from someone who went to University of Michigan.

  15. Bob – but many people take that language literally (and some mean it literally too) and that problem needs to be addressed.

    Would the Rambam use such words himself without disclaimers/explanations ? I doubt it.

  16. Part of the difficulty is the need to use everyday symbolic language to try to describe very deep concepts, such as the connection of the soul to HaShem. This involves the use of words in ways that differ from their normal meanings. Rambam discusses such word usage in his Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed).

  17. “G-d, who places a small piece of Himself inside every Jew.”

    Isn’t this statement problematic theologically ?

    I thought one of the reasons we reject a certain other faith is because it says that a certain man was G-d incarnate and we insist that humans and G-d are distinctly separate categories.

    And what is meant by ‘piece of G-d’ ? I thought we believe Hashem is indivisible.

  18. The spark is that because of Avraham’s choices, they can never totally extinguish their connection to G-d, no matter what they do.

    From the Spark of Freedom:


    The Egyptian exile was mentioned for the first time in Genesis 15, in the context of the Covenant sealed between God and Abraham in that passage. Rabbi Dessler explains that the Covenant with Abraham concerned the creation of a point of incorruptibility in the human soul, often referred to as the pintele yud, or the Jewish point, the inextinguishable spark of holiness present in all the descendants of Abraham.

    God gave man limitless free choice. Before Abraham came along, the entire human being was up for grabs in the existential war between good and evil, between the yetzer tov and the yetzer hara, the good inclination versus the evil inclination. The world was entirely destroyed once by the grip of evil in the Flood, and it narrowly escaped the same fate once again at the time of the great Dispersal.

    Abraham changed all this. Through the exercise of his own free choice, he established an unassailable point of purity in the soul of his descendants. There would always be a tiny spark in each Jew that was totally immune to the blandishments of the yetzer hara, a spark of holiness that would always respond to the call of God. Man was no longer entirely up for grabs and therefore the world would never be totally conquered by evil.

  19. Regarding what you say about the tiny spark in each Jew, I know many Jews who it is hard to really believe this about the spark.

    They like to refer to themselves as Goyim, their children all intermarried, they despise being in any shule at all.

    So where is their spark, realistically?

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