She came over to me before my lecture and confessed that she wasn’t a believer. She wished she believed, but after years of propaganda in the FSU, belief was so hard for her. Belief in G‑d. Belief in the goodness of humanity. Belief in Torah and the Jewish people.

The woman who approached me was a participant at a weekend resort on the West Coast where I was invited to lecture a couple of weeks ago. The Shabbaton was organized for Russian Jews by the inspirational Davidoff family. My schedule was packed with lectures geared to educate and encourage.

As the woman spoke, her auburn curls bounced off her shoulder; her dark brown eyes were searching. We couldn’t talk because the room was quickly filling and my lecture was about to begin.

That’s why I was astounded when I glanced at her face as I shared the story of a little boy who in a moment of panic and fear covered his eyes and recited the Shema Yisrael prayer.

The face of a nonbeliever listening to the story would have been hard, or at the very least indifferent. Yet as I searched her face, I noticed a tear trickling down her cheek, which moments later was joined by several more.

This week we read the Torah portion of Vayechi, which speaks about the death of our patriarch Jacob, who was also named Israel, the name of all Jews. This portion concludes the book of Genesis and marks the end of an era. The next book, Shemot (Exodus), begins with the children of Israel suffering the harsh Egyptian servitude and exile.

Interestingly, this portion that speaks of Israel’s death is titled Vayechi, which means life.

On the words, “The days drew near for Israel to die” (Genesis 47:29), the Midrash comments:

Said Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish: “The days of the righteous die, but they do not die . . . It does not say ‘and Israel drew near to die,’ but ‘the days of Israel drew near to die.’

Israel does not die. What a potent reminder as we enter into the long night of exile. Our days may be filled with blackness and disbelief during our long exile sojourn, but Israel’s spirit remains intact. Our belief may be hidden, deep down, but it is alive.

Before the end of the weekend, I had occasion to speak once again to the woman with the searching eyes. “You know,” I said to her gently, “for someone who thinks she is not a believer, I can only tell you that I covet your level of belief!”

Of course, the woman demurred, saying it was not true. Saying that she had so far to grow; saying how she wished she could be more.

And I thought of how the darkness cannot destroy the soul of Israel. His days may be difficult, but his spirit remains alive and vibrant.