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.

Self-Confidence Podcasts Now Available

Get a taste of the Self-Confidence Seminar with my Self-Confidence Podcasts. Each episode will be 2-4 minutes long. You can listen to the first three episodes below.

01. Thinking Positive

02. Life is an Opportunity

03. From Lonely to Alone to Unique

Faithfulness in Adversity

Contributed by Shoshana Z.

Faithfulness (Emunah) doesn’t mean expecting miracles, only the certainty that the place I find myself is the place from which I need to make the choices before me. I don’t pray to suddenly become well, but I pray that Hashem will give wisdom and insight to researchers to find better treatments and cures to cancer and other serious disease. It is not about me, but about the greater realm, where we all find ourselves. For now it is not faithfulness (emunah) that strengthens me, but gratitude, thankfulness for the “thousands upon thousands” of wonders that I’m privileged to know and experience. The fact that I have cancer is not something to fight. It is something to accept. Of course that doesn’t mean passively ignoring medicine, or giving up or any such thing:

Only when we know where we stand can we choose to move in the right direction.

This is true in every choice, be it medical or moral.

Prayer is good, and effects change in the world. It may well bring positive outcomes, so I welcome it with joy. It is also true that “G-d is not a celestial bellhop.” Faithfulness (Emunah) is not an affirmation of G-d’s participation in our expectations, but our participation in His. It is right an good to ask Him to fulfill the desires or our hearts, but the reality is that we do not get those desires fulfilled — at least not every time.

When people talk about taking life-threatening risks, I have often responded that one understands that if it is “our time” then it is is “our time”, but I am not raising my hand to volunteer! Same here, but in reverse: Prayer is me raising my hand to volunteer for a good outcome.

My job, however, is to use the gifts that I am granted to make the very best choices available to me. Educate myself, get the tests, face the facts, and move forward.

WITH that, no in place of it, is faithfulness (Emunah): Knowing that all reality is nothing but the presence of G-d in our world.

Alone Against the World—Chanukah’s Antidote to Loneliness

Dear friend,

With the light of Chanukah about to peer through Hashem’s lattice-work, I would like to share an article that I have written which will hopefully inspire your Chanukah experience.

Also, I invite you to view my new Self Confidence book series, below. I am available to present the Self Confidence Seminar to your community for an individual lecture or a Scholar in Residence Shabbaton.

Wishing you much light.


Rabbi Yisroel Roll

Alone Against the World—Chanukah’s Antidote to Loneliness

The poignant single candle lighting up your window on the first night of Chanukah holds the key to solving the pain of existential loneliness. The solitary candle is an expression of the halachah brought in the Gemarra (Shabbos 22b): Ner Ish Uveiso”–one candle fulfills the mitzvah for the entire household. The basic halacha is one candle should be lit every night. Of course, we pasken like Beis Hillel that we add one candle every night to bring the majesty of eight candles filling our souls on Zos Chanukah–on the eighth night. But, the basic halacha is that only one candle per night is required. How can one lonely candle be sufficient?

Loneliness is a devastating emotional state. It can lead to a feeling of emotional emptiness and isolation. You may feel alone and uncared for—which often leads to feeling unworthy of love, and ultimately a lack of self-worth and value. Feeling alone is an understatement. The feeling of emotional pain is with you every waking moment. You go to sleep depressed–and awaken to despair and foreboding. You feel uncomfortable in your own skin. There is a pit in your stomach—and you second guess your decisions. Even worse, you begin to second guess your life.

The Midrash comments on the encounter between Yaakov and the angel as follows: Just as it says about Hashem עֵינֵי גַּבְהוּת אָדָם, שָׁפֵל, וְשַׁח, רוּם אֲנָשִׁים; וְנִשְׂגַּב ה לְבַדּוֹ, בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא.— And Hashem alone shall be exalted in that day,” (Yeshayahu 2:11), so too it states about Yaakov וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב, לְבַדּוֹ; וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ, עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר— And Yaakov was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until dawn.” (Bereishis 32:25) Eitz Yosef explains: Just as Hashem is One and unique in the heavenly sphere, and there is no one like Him, so too Yaakov was alone and unique in the earthly sphere, and there was no one like him in merit and strength. Therefore, the angel was jealous of him and wrestled with him. (Bereishis Rabbah 77:1)

The Maharzu (Rav Ze’ev Wolf Einhorn of Horodna) explains that Hashem gave Yaakov the awesome strength needed to stand up to the angel. This “awesome strength” that Hashem gave Yaakov is aloneness. The key to Yaakov’s success against the angel of Esav is that Yaakov’s aloneness was an extension and expression of Hashem’s aloneness. Aloneness connotes individuality, independence, and oneness.

We usually think of aloneness as a negative state that leads to emotional loneliness. Many people suffer from loneliness, and it can be debilitating. But the Midrash, as explained by the Sifri and the Maharal, is making an astounding point. Aloneness leads to inner serenity when a person becomes alone and integrated with himself. This means that he accepts his aloneness and uniqueness as an expression of Hashem’s aloneness and uniqueness. If you are alone, you can find wholeness within yourself when consciousness of God fills your mind, feelings, and actions. There can be no internal turmoil or confusion when you fill yourself with the awareness that your entire being is an expression of God’s Will. There is no room within your mind and psyche for inner turmoil because you are alone, one, and aligned with the Will of Hashem.

You can then revel in aloneness, represented by the singular candle of the first night of Chanukah, and not allow it to turn into the depressing mindset of loneliness. This is instructive of the last part of the verse, which says: וְאֵין עִמּוֹ, אֵל נֵכָר— And there was no strange god with Him.” This means that God’s “aloneness” should bring man to become conscious of God’s singularity. God is alone, and man should strive to think of nothing other than Godliness alone — that everything in the world is a manifestation of God. It is the hallmark and goal of an eved Hashem to experience “God consciousness” as much of his waking hours as possible. When he does this and realizes that there is nothing except for God, that God is reality and that your psyche is an expression of that reality, then there is no room for other gods within you, or with you. You can then achieve inner tranquility by virtue of your aloneness.

This idea is illustrated most profoundly by Rav Tzadok Hakohen in Pri Tzadik on Parashas Bechukosai, in which he states that the mitzvos and Hashem’s attributes are not external or separate from His being; rather they are manifestations of Hashem Himself. This is more than being intrinsic to His being. They are one with His Being in an absolute way that the human mind cannot comprehend. This is the meaning of the concept that Hashem keeps His Own mitzvos, i.e., Hashem prays, puts on tefillin, and observes Shabbos (Berachos 6b-7a). That Hashem rests on Shabbos means that He brings everything in creation together in a harmonious oneness that reflects His Oneness.

When we rest on Shabbos, we create an inner reality of oneness and contentment such that we need not travel anywhere or perform any creative acts. Instead, we are at rest, or at one, within ourselves. We have arrived at our destination: the integration and wholeness of the self. (Schwartz, Yitzchok. Rav Tzadok Hakohen on the Parsha. Jerusalem: Mosaica Press, 2014.)

I invite you to proactively seek the aloneness, and therefore the independence and uniqueness, that resides within your own psyche and self. You can then turn emotional loneliness into the awareness that you were individually chosen by Hashem for a unique mission that only you can fulfill. The solitary candle in the window on the first night of Chanukah reflects your own unique individuality and uniqueness. May the light of Chanukah inspire you to discover your life mission and in turn, bring new light and motivation into your life, and into the lives of your family and community.

Podcast Interview with Plural of You

I believe that the antidote to loneliness is to stop thinking about being loved and to start loving. It is time to stop seeking love and to give love. It is time to stop looking for approval and to start giving approval and to build others. That is what Josh Morgan is all about. His Plural of You program seeks out proactive people who build others. It was an honor for me to be interviewed by him and to promote the Plural of all of Us.

You can listen to my interview with Josh at Plural of You’s website.