When you first meet a person, you see what is in front of you, and you automatically begin to paint a picture of who the person is. You look at the clothes and the facial expressions, and you make judgements and assumptions.

The woman sitting in front of me had a pleasant smile and a shoulder-length reddish-brown wig. Her dress was both stylish and elegant. She looked to me like a typical religious woman, a mother of seven. Probably nothing interesting to tell—if anything, maybe boring. But when we started to speak, I saw that she was far from typical! The calm presence and pleasant smile masked an incredibly strong force and a powerful story.I saw that she was far from typical!

Mina, born in the former USSR, always knew that she was Jewish, but as a child had no idea what that meant—except for two things: her parents told her that being Jewish was very important, and they told her that she could marry only a fellow Jew.

When Mina was eleven, the Iron Curtain fell, and Mina was “free” to be openly “Jewish”—whatever that meant, because she didn’t know. At 13, she heard something about Shabbat and wanted to keep it. But she had a problem: in the city where she lived, the school week was from Monday to Saturday, and by law she had to go. Her heart cried out to G‑d—she wanted to keep Shabbat. It was a Wednesday, and Shabbat was approaching. All of a sudden, they received a notice from the school. The government was studying the productivity of students who received two days off from school instead of one. They picked one school from the thousands in the city. It was her school. There would be no school on Saturday!

She celebrated that first Shabbat in her room, doing nothing. Darkness descended on her, and she didn’t reach for a light. Her parents told Mina that she was crazy. (At that point, Mina didn’t know that there is no reason to sit in darkness; you can leave on a light that was lit before Shabbat.) She told them that she didn’t care.

Mina spent her Shabbats alone and in darkness for three years. At sixteen, she had the opportunity to go to Moscow to study in a Jewish school for young women and girls. At the age of seventeen she came to Israel, and two years later she married. Now, seventeen years later, Mina’s children take for granted that they live in such freedom, that every Shabbat there is light and kosher food. They take for granted the Hebrew language that they speak and the Torah that they learn openly. Mina tells me that she doesn’t really talk about those times. Her children are eons away and couldn’t understand.

When I asked Mina about her time keeping Shabbat alone in the darkness, do you know what she told me? She told me that it was amazing. She felt that the Divine Presence was so close. She didn’t mind the discomfort; she felt like a queen sitting on a royal throne. She felt important and protected. She was in the presence of the King.

There is a certain day of the summer when the sun reaches its peak, when the day is at its longest. There is so much light. From the breaking of the dawn until at last the sun sets, so much light. And then, just as the days are getting longer and longer, they begin to get shorter. Tu B’Av, the fifteenth day of the month of Av, falls out just as the days begin to shorten. When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, the annual chopping of firewood for the sacrificial altar was concluded on this day. Wood used for the altar was used for the highest purpose—to connect man and G‑d through sacrifice. They couldn’t collect it after this day because there wasn’t enough sunlight to dry it.1

The Talmud also discusses how Tu B’Av was the matchmaking day. The daughters of Jerusalem would go out in simple white dresses to dance in the vineyards. Tu B’Av was the matchmaking day Men would come, and they would choose a match. No one knew if you were rich or poor, from an important family or from a simple one. There were no beauty contests or competitions. It was a day of connecting. And it all happened on the day that commenced the shortening of days and the lengthening of nights. Why?

Because in life we have challenges, and these challenges bring you either closer or further apart. When you get married, you feel like you are at a peak. You look beautiful; your spouse looks beautiful. The future is bright and full of light. And then something pops up, a challenge. It could be financial, it could be related to having or raising children, it could have to do with in-laws or family dynamics. It feels like a dark moment. But if you use that moment to come together and grow from that challenge, it will bring you to heights which you could never have reached before.

On Tu B’Av, it was the peak of the summer days, but it was the beginning of the time that leads to the winter. The message was clear: I’m marrying you not for money or beauty or honor. I’m marrying you so that we can grow together. So, too, with our relationship with G‑d: we have difficult moments, crises, and challenges. When we use these times to turn to Him and cling to Him, we reach incredible spiritual heights. We are given strength and understanding. It’s in those dark moments when the potential for closeness is greatest.

And when it’s light? When the year goes through its cycle and the seasons change once again, when we pass the winter cold and the days grow longer instead of shorter? We need to take that closeness and not forget it. We need to actually bring some of the darkness into the light, because when there is too much light, when you stare directly into the sun, the brightness blinds you, and you close your eyes, turning away from the light instead of towards it.

“Mina,” I told her, “don’t forget that closeness that you had in Russia! Don’t forget that the darkness brought you light and connection. Tell your children about it, and let them hear your stories, even if they don’t understand. One day, maybe they will understand. And during their own challenges, they will draw strength from those stories.”