At a recent shalom zachar, the Friday night gathering to celebrate the birth of a baby boy, I stepped outside with the new father to wish him goodnight. My heart was full of joy for the occasion, but there was also a deep sadness in me as I reflected on my own missed opportunities. I was thinking back to when I was about the age of the young man standing before me.

In those days, my idea of a good time was not, as I had just done that night, sitting around a table with a group of Jewish men, “making lechaims” (i.e. raising our glasses to toast life), singing nigunim (Chassidic melodies), and sharing Torah thoughts. Back then, a good time meant going to bars, trying new drinks, “playing the field”—all the things secular culture told me would make me happy but which just left me feeling alone and alienated.

As happy as I was for this young father, I was feeling down about those seemingly wasted old days, and I embraced him and said, “You’ve got it right. You’re truly living life.”

And then I walked home mourning for the years I had lost.

A few weeks later, I was sitting next to another young man at something called a farbrengen, which is kind of like a shalom zachar only without the baby. We got to discussing the Year of Hakhel, when we honor the Biblical commandment that the King of Israel read the Torah before an assembly of the nation once every seven years. Not having a king anymore, today we commemorate Hakhel by encouraging each other in our Judaism and publicly displaying our love for G‑d. You might think of it as a yearlong Simchat Torah. And that reminded me of one of those nights long ago when I was, as they say, looking for love in all the wrong places.

I was at an upscale bar in the Chicago Gold Coast, martini in hand and desire in my heart, when a crowd of people came dancing into the lounge from the street. A man with a long black beard was leading them, and in his arms he carried something I recognized, even though I had never been that close to one before.

As the procession made its way past me, I leaned into him.

“Is that,” I asked, “a Torah?”

He smiled and said it was.

What in the world, I thought, were these people doing in a bar dancing with the Torah? I didn’t know it at the time, but it was Simchat Torah, and one of the customs on that day is to dance with the Torah in and out of the synagogue.

Now, some 30 years later, the young man at the farbrengen said, “Maybe that was the spark that lit your pintele yid,” by which he meant the small flame of longing for G‑d in every Jew’s heart.

No, I thought, that was years and hundreds of martinis before I became religious.

But later that night it occurred to me that the moment in the bar was, in fact, my first direct experience with Torah-observant Judaism, and it had not only roused my curiosity but also my admiration. I loved that these people were dancing so happily with the Torah in a downtown Chicago bar. It made me long to be like them.

Hashem, I now realize, was reaching out to me in the very place I now regret spending so much time, tapping me on the shoulder and letting me know there were sources of joy older, more profound, more real than whatever else it was I was looking for that night. I was given a taste of the joy I would often imbibe later in life at celebrations of Judaism—shalom zachors, brit milahs, upshernishes, weddings, farbrengens, or simply davening.

It took me a long while after that to find what I found, but the spark that was lit that night prepared me to recognize the beauty of Judaism when I encountered it more deeply some years later.

That rabbi, if he was a rabbi, will never know he lit that spark. How could he? We had a momentary encounter in a room full of people. All that he did was confirm that yes, indeed, he was carrying the Torah—with joy—in a place I would never have expected to find it.

But now I’m grateful I was in the bar that night, even if it was part of a life I sometimes look back on with melancholy, because it was there that G‑d chose to meet me and point the way to a better life.

And it reminds me, moreover, that in this time of Hakhel, when we spend an entire year celebrating the Torah, we never know when the public display of our love for G‑d will touch another person’s heart and awaken in them a longing for something better, deeper, and more joyous.

Editor’s Note: Upon receiving this story, we confirmed that the rabbi with the long black beard is none other than Rabbi Meir Chai Benhiyoun, director of Chabad of the Loop, Gold Coast and Lincoln Park. Every year on Simchat Torah, he and his congregation dance from bar to bar, bringing Jewish joy, awareness, and inspiration to all.