Transformative Stories: Alan Finds a Shidduch

When I served as the rabbi of the New West End Synagogue in London, one of our members was Alan Sierota. Alan had lost his mother, and every Shabbos he would travel from Chiswick to his late mother’s shul, the New West End Synagogue. He would always arrive on time, and at 9:05 a.m., after he said the Mourner’s Kaddish, he would leave the main shul and attend the shul’s explanatory service with Rabbi Rashi Simon, the director of the Kesher organization in London. From the lively discussion and explanations, he learned a lot about Judaism and prayer.

Alan’s father and mother had divorced when he was a teenager and his father had passed away shortly thereafter, when Alan was still in his teens. After he organized a gravestone in memory of his mother, Alan decided to trace his father’s burial place. This required searching the records of five London cemeteries. When he finally found it, he was dismayed to discover that there was no tombstone to mark his father’s resting place. So Alan decided to organize and pay for a monument. He invited me to serve as the officiating rabbi at the unveiling. I attended the service at the Brixton Cemetery in South London. There were three people in attendance: Alan, his aunt, and his first cousin. I spoke about Alan’s perseverance in locating his father’s burial place and of the kavod and chesed shel emes that Alan had performed by putting up a monument to his father’s memory, twenty-five years after his passing. And I gave him a blessing that Hashem should repay his kindness by finding him a wife within the year. Alan was forty-five years old. The date was the twenty-fifth of Elul.

Three weeks later, when Alan walked into “Live and Learn,” the New West End Synagogue’s adult education program, he met Sarah Cohen, a forty-year-old woman from Denmark. They started dating and got engaged soon after. The wedding was in late November. They had their first baby — a boy — in August. The date of the bris was the twenty-fifth of Elul. Alan and Sarah are now shomer Shabbos and are pillars of the community in Chiswick.

Alan is a mevakesh Hashem, a seeker of Hashem. He wanted to learn more. And he wanted to do something to perpetuate his father’s memory. He did not give up. He had a goal in mind and he brought his mission to fruition because he was determined to perform the mitzvah of kavod hameis, proper burial and honoring one’s parents.

In this parashah, we are told of the five daughters of Tzelaphechad. Tzelaphechad had died without leaving any sons. In the absence of any male heirs, his daughters wanted to inherit his land. In an earlier parashah, they approached and said to Moshe: “Lama yigara sheim avinu — Why should our father’s name be omitted?” (Bemidbar 27:4).

As a result of their being mevakshim, seekers of a portion of land in Israel, Moshe inquired of Hashem and He responded by teaching Moshe Rabbeinu a new law — that women can inherit their father if there are no male heirs. They sought a portion in the holiness of the land, they approached Moshe — and a new law resulted. They elicited a new law from the mouth of Hashem — because they were seekers. The same language is used by the people in the desert who had been spiritually impure when the Jewish people celebrated Pesach. The Torah says that they approached Moshe Rabbeinu and they said: “Lama nigara — Why should we be diminished [by not offering Hashem’s offering]?” (Bemidbar 9:7).

As a result of approaching Moshe with their desire to participate in the Pesach offering, Moshe inquired of Hashem, who responded by teaching Moshe a new law: Those who were spiritually impure on Pesach could still offer a Pesach offering thirty days later, on Pesach Sheini.

In both cases — the daughters of Tzelaphechad and those seeking participation in the Pesach offering — their yearning for closeness to Hashem, and an inner aspiration to participate in the kedushah of the nation, prompted them to approach Moshe and request inclusion. Their desire to join the rest of the nation in experiencing a closer connection to Hashem drove them forward. It was this inner drive — this yearning, bikush — which elicited a positive response from Hashem.

How do we, as parents, cultivate this sense of becoming mevakshei Hashem in our children? It spills over from our own sincerity and genuineness in avodas Hashem. When we daven with kavanah, when we connect to Hashem through our sincere bera chos, when we sing zemiros at the Shabbos table with joy — then our children will learn to genuinely seek a meaningful relationship with Hashem.

The Alter quotes the Midrash, which describes how Adam was named:

And Hashem asked man, “And you, by what name is it fitting that you shall be called?”

And the man answered, “Adam, because I was taken from the adamah, the earth.” (Bereishis Rabbah 17:4)

All other beings were given a spiritual name by man, a name that described their essence. Why did man give himself a physical name rather than a spiritual one? The Alter explains that with this name Adam, the first man, described his true essence. On one hand, Adam is the crown of creation, bearing a soul and an intellect; and on the other hand, he was created from the adamah, the earth, and he is therefore reminded that he needs to improve himself each day. If he does not grow, he will automatically be reduced to the lowest level, as it says, “Even the mosquito was created before you.” And thus he called himself “Adam,” to remind himself that if he fails to fulfill his purpose he will be reduced to the earth from which he was created, as it says, “Earth you are and to the earth you shall return” (Bereishis 3:19).

If we look at the letters of the word adamah, earth, we see that simply by rearranging the Hebrew vowels we form the word adameh, meaning “similar to.” He can be “adamah” or “adameh.” Man can give in to his earthly nature and be guided by physical desires, or he can elevate himself and become domeh, similar to G-d. This takes effort. In the ground, one must plant seeds. In the growth of the seeds one sees the similarity between man and G-d. It is through growth — which takes places in the ground that man can resemble G-d. Man needs to work on his character and refine his inner self. By becoming more sensitive, patient, caring, compassionate, and truthful, we elevate our characters and grow closer to resembling G-d. When we engage in this avodah with sincerity our children will witness our genuine striving and will also seek to become mevakshei Hashem.

Transformative Stories: Peggy Finds Herself and a Shidduch

During the 1990s, when I served as the rabbi of the New West End Synagogue in London, England, I organized a student housing project nearby so that we would have young people to breathe new life into our shul. We had six men and six women on different floors of a nearby apartment building, and we invited these university students to join our family for Shabbos meals. One Shabbos, Yitzik Ben Izri from Belgium, a member of the student house, invited Peggy Sparanga, from Marseille, France, to join the other students at our Shabbos table. She was nineteen years old, and she had never before experienced a Shabbos. Yitzik had met her at a Hillel House program on Simchas Torah the week before. Peggy was working as a nanny in a Jewish home, and the family suggested she attend the Hillel House event on Simchas Torah to meet other Jewish students.

Peggy enjoyed the “Shalom Aleichem,” Kiddush, blessing the children, the zemiros and the divrei Torah so much that she came back the next Shabbos, and the next. She attended our Shabbos meals for seven weeks in a row, and then asked me whether I had any friends with whom she could spend Shabbos in the Golders Green area. I set her up with my friends Rabbi Danny Kirsch and Rabbi Jonathan Dove, and she became a bas bayis in these families.  By May, she was keeping Shabbos and kashrus. In June, I suggested that it was time for her to attend a seminary in Israel.

I raised the money for her tuition, and she applied to Neve Yerushalayim. On the application form, she wrote that her mother was Jewish and her father was Catholic. I asked her to describe her background and she told me the following story:

Peggy’s grandfather was a survivor of the Holocaust and he felt that it was best to assimilate rather than remain an identifiable Jew. So, he brought up his children without a trace of Jewish tradition and his daughter ended up marrying a Catholic — Mr. Sparanga, the father of Peggy and her sister, Lisa. Peggy grew up without any Judaism. However, her grandfather did sprinkle his conversations with some Yiddish expressions, and Peggy picked them up. In conversations with her non-Jewish cousins, Peggy would say things like: Pourquoi tu portes les shmattas?” (Why are you wearing shmattas?) or “Pourquoi tu habites comme un shikar?” (Why are you acting like a drunk?).

Her non-Jewish cousins asked her what language she was speaking. “French, of course!” was her reply.They said: “That’s not French!” She asked her mother, who told her that those unusual words were a dialect of French called “ProvenÇal,” which people speak in the South of France. Her cousins replied that they knew and spoke ProvenÇal and the words she was using were not ProvenÇal. Peggy went back to her mother, who referred her to her grandfather. He explained to Peggy that these were Yiddish words. “Why are we speaking Yiddish?” asked Peggy. “Because we are Jewish,” he answered.

“What is Jewish?” she asked. He said that he didn’t know too much about it anymore, but he did remember that there was a Jewish prayer called the Shema. Peggy’s grandfather taught her the Shema and told her that she should say it at night when she went to bed. So, from the age of eleven until age nineteen, the sum total of Peggy’s Jewish knowledge was that she said the first verse of the Shema when she went to bed.

The only connection that Peggy had to Judaism was saying Shema at night. That is how she knew she was Jewish, and that is why she chose to work for a Jewish family in London as a nanny -just because her grandfather used a few Yiddish words.

After spending one year at Neve Yerushalayim, she came back to my shul and told me of the chesed she was doing with a French family in the Machane Yehudah area. They had eight children and were so poor that they had a broken, dirt floor. I made an appeal in my shul and raised some money for the family. I gave the money to Peggy and, when she went back to seminary for a second year, she brought the money to the family and they got the floor fixed.  After a second year of seminary, Peggy returned to Marseille to care for her ailing father. She became a bas bayis at the homes of the kollel families in Marseille.

While in Marseille, Peggy was offered a shidduch with a French boy who was observant but who did not learn daily. Peggy said that she would only go out with him if he learned each day, which he began to do. In December 1999, I received an invitation to Peggy’s wedding in Marseille. On January 19, 2000, I flew to Marseille for Peggy’s wedding. The mesader kiddushin, Rabbi Yeshurun, said that Peggy had endeared herself to the kollel families and that she was “notre Peggy — our Peggy.” He explained that she truly represented the meaning of ezer kenegdo, a helpmate. Ezer, said Rabbi Yeshurun, comes from the word oz, meaning strength. Peggy’s strength was that she was a seeker of Torah, a mevakesh Hashem.

At the reception, Peggy’s chassan, Solly Malka, delivered a devar Torah and then said: “Je m’excuse monsieur le Rabin, mais c’est mon Peggy, maintenant — Excuse me, Rabbi, but now she is my Peggy!”

Peggy, who is now known as Faige Chana, is happily married and is living in Marseille with Solly and their children. In this week’s parashah, we find the requirements of one who is to be involved in building the Mishkan.

Every wise hearted person among you shall come and make everything that Hashem has commanded. (Shemos 35:10)

What is a “wise-hearted person”? Isn’t wisdom a matter of intellect and the heart the domain of emotion? How can someone have a wise emotion?

There is a specific situation in which intellect and emotion fuse with another. This is in the case of mevakesh Hashem, one who yearns for closeness with Hashem. A person who has a desire to learn is one who seeks opportunities to be close to Hashem. He uses his intellect to pursue a close emotional and spiritual relationship with Hashem. The Torah says that when Moshe Rabbeinu saw the burning bush —Moshe said: “I will turn aside now, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.” (Shemos 3:3)

The Alter says that simply because Moshe turned his face to see the miraculous bush, immediately Hashem revealed Himelf to Moshe. From here we see, says the Alter, how very close we are to Hashem. There are no barriers between Him, and us and we do not need intermediaries. If we focus on the goal — getting close to Hashem through personal growth — Hashem will guide us; He will be there for us. All we need to do is get in the “zone” and focus on our goal, be it a family or a personal goal. When we are so united with the goal so as to become one with it, that is a G-dly moment, and Hashem is revealed in our lives.

Let us say that one has a child with a learning disability, who has difficulty absorbing information, who has ADHD, anxiety, or depression. The child wants to learn, but he cannot learn as well as others. How can he maintain self-esteem despite low grades? The answer must be that there is much more to a child than his academic performance. There are middos, social skills, and spirituality, a yearning to be a servant of Hashem. These can be seen in the self esteem wheel on page

Children can excel in artistic and extracurricular endeavors, and I have found that one of the keys to developing self-esteem in a child who has a learning challenge is to find a creative ability — music, art, dance, drama, woodwork, electronics, or other skill — in which the child can excel and express his creative self. The child, parents, teachers, and advisers should brainstorm together to discover the yet-untapped creative field of excellence that each child has within. If we haven’t found it, then we haven’t looked hard enough. Every child has a yearning to learn, and we must find that sense of the child’s bikush Hashem early on in order to channel it into an area where the child can feeI unique and accomplished.