Born in France to Moroccan parents, she’d grown up in Paris. I liked her from the first. She spoke English and exuded a charismatic combination of iron self-assurance and a cheerful vibrancy.
When I asked her how she got to know English so well (nearly all the French I’ve met in Eretz Yisrael don’t seem to know English, so all the communication is in Hebrew), she mentioned that she lived in America for a year.
“Where?” I asked.
“Beverly Hills,” she said.
“Oh,” I said.
Beverly Hills is only for the rich and not where your average French mademoiselle would be able to spend a year. “What did you do there?” I asked.
She gave me a smile and a shrug. “I just wanted to experience America. I rented an apartment there, bought a Mercedes, and just lived life.”
“Okay,” I said. “But what do you do?”
I was intrigued as to what kind of a job she’d snagged to support that lifestyle.
Her smile became more self-conscious. “Shopping,” she said. “Mostly shopping. Clubs. I made a lot of friends and we did stuff together. The beach.”
Okay, but what job did she have?
“I didn’t have a job,” she finally explained with her slight smile. “I was taking a break from my job.”
This just did not compute in my mind.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “You lived in Beverly Hills for a year with a Mercedes and shopping—just from your savings?”
“What kind of job did you have before?” I needed to know.
In short, she specialized in a niche branch of law, which made her fabulously wealthy.
And as I got to know her, I discovered some amazing stuff about her.
So she moved to Tahiti where many other unimaginably wealthy people chose to spend the rest of their lives.
At first, she enjoyed herself quite a lot.
But as time went on, she noticed that many of her colleagues needed to drink or drug themselves in order to deal with the sheer meaninglessness of living in the perfect paradise.
Others turned to Eastern belief systems and meditation.
I’m not sure if she’d even hit 30 at this point, but she realized that she had her whole life ahead of her.
And this was it.
At one point, one of the men on the island said something to her that for the life of me, I cannot remember. But he basically pointed out that this level of luxury was kind of a curse and that whether people were meditating or partying, it was all sort of pointless.
The truth of this struck her smothered pinteleh Yid, and not long after, she decided to leave the island.
“I wonder if he ever left?” she mused. “He was also Jewish. I hope he’s religious now.”
From Secular Paris to Frum Jerusalem
Then she started attending shiurim and decided to become fully mitzvah-observant.
Unfortunately, the doctor wasn’t on-board with that, so after 2 years of marriage, they divorced.
“I was sad for a very long time,” she told me with a soft heaviness. “He was a very nice man.”
Then she came to the French seminary in Eretz Yisrael, where I met her.
I remained gob-smacked by how content she seemed sharing a mediocre dorm room with 2 other French girls—much younger than she, BTW—after all that luxuriant living.
She married another French baal teshuvah. The wedding took place in a very normal, not-extravagant Jerusalem hall, then they lived in a small apartment in the middle of Jerusalem.
The rent in that area is pricey, but the apartment was unimpressive and stood in an old dumpy building on a street full of the exhaust and noise of constant traffic.
(Okay, and I know this is impolite of me, but I couldn’t help wondering what happened to all her money that she had such a non-opulent wedding and lived in such a plain apartment. I think she decided to put a big chunk of it in savings and live under their means—which was yet another good decision on her part.)
I ran into her one day as she stood leaning against the rail on an outside stairway.
Her shoulders sagged and her mouth pouted in the charming way mouths do among the French when they're feeling glum. After greeting her, I asked her what was wrong.
Giving me a doleful gaze, she explained that “all the stuff about mitzvot and halachot sounds so inspiring in class, but really, checking rice is very tedious.”
Well, yes. It is.
Soon enough, she started having one child after the other. She was happy, busy, frazzled, and determined all in one.
Then with my own marriage, child-bearing-and-rearing, plus moving around, we lost contact.
Lesson #1: Mesirut Nefesh for Mitzvot
I never heard her yearn for any part of her old life.
But did she?
Did she ever look at her life on a particularly vexing and sleep-deprived day and say, “I gave up my Tahitian Paradise for THIS?!!”
I have no idea.
But the point about her journey is this: She is a regular person who did a very special thing.
She gave up Paradise on Earth for a life of Torah and mitzvot in Eretz Yisrael.
And as far as I know, she never looked back. (Or if she did, she never complained out loud. Well, not to me, anyway.)
Yet there’s another lesson here.
Lesson #2: Life is a Journey
It was a journey.
In fact, even the decadent life in Beverly Hills wasn’t meaningless enough.
It was only when she luxuriated in the perfect life of an island paradise among the super-wealthy that she hit rock-bottom, and Hashem sent her the exact words she needed to hear.
And then it took another few years to start becoming frum, realize her first husband would not adjust, get divorced, then move to Eretz Yisrael.
Lesson #3: Making that Initial First Choice
Did she even realize it herself?
But she was.
And the entire journey of mesirut nefesh started with one step:
She left the island.
Before anything else, she needed to come to the realization that lounging around in tropical extravagance was not an appropriate way to live the rest of her life.
Then she needed to act on it.
And that’s the big special choice (and 3rd lesson) here:
She chose to leave the island.
And making that correct choice led to a series of other correct choices falling into place.
I think these stories are so important because while she’s a wonderful person, she is not a tzaddekes. (Most people aren't.) If you knew her, while you’d probably like her, you wouldn’t think she is this incredibly special person capable of such astounding mesirut nefesh (which she herself didn't consider astounding).
She struggled with the stresses and tedium of life just like everyone else. She had her ups and downs just like everyone else.
She was a wholly regular person.
Yet she made this extraordinary decision (which she doesn’t consider extraordinary at all because to her, the truth was fairly straight-forward and she is a decisive proactive person).
She left the island.
And this shows that anyone is capable of extraordinary acts.
You don’t need to be “special” or “great” to do great things.