I had never had a mystical experience until I entered the wilderness of Sinai about twenty years ago. At the time, I didn't know I has having a mystical experience. It is only hindsight that allows me to recognize what it was.
I had signed up for a five-day hike through Sinai with the Society for the Preservation of Nature In Israel. I knew no one else on the trip. All I knew was that each of us was to bring our own food and camping equipment for a journey that would include hiking through remote areas of the desert. I look back now and see how isolated and alone I must have felt, as scared as our ancestors may have been as they wandered through that same wilderness.
On the second day of the journey, we had planned to reach the base of Mount Sinai in the early afternoon so that we could spend the night inside the cloistered monastery of Santa Caterina, but we were late and did not arrive there until shortly before sunset. The purple mountains cast ominous shadows upon us as we hiked futilely toward the locked monastery. We were tired, cold, and weary. I remember the moment when I looked in despair at the plains behind us and the mountains towering over us, thinking, "So this is where it happened!"
Then I shook myself. This is where what happened? Never before had I believed that an actual revelation of Torah had occurred in the Sinai wilderness. I was, after all, a rational person. I knew the Bible had been written by human beings, albeit ones inspired by God. Yet somehow in that moment, an unexpected and powerful spiritual current opened me up to a new way of experiencing God's Presence. For the first time in my life, I felt the power of divine revelation.
To this day, I am convinced that the reason was something about the wilderness itself. It was quiet in a way I had never heard quiet before, empty in a way I had never seen emptiness. No debris of daily life cluttered my mind. The usual distractions were absent. For a brief moment, my self as I knew it was not the same. Paradoxically, it seemed that the very nothingness of the desert was what had led me to new belief in Something. And I understood, at last, why God had spoken to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai: "Anyone who does not make himself or herself open like the wilderness will not be able to acquire wisdom and Torah; and so, it is said, 'in the wilderness of Sinai'." (Bemidbar Rabbah 1:8)
Twenty years later, I long to reenter that wilderness, to find that place, to strip myself down to nothingness so that I can again let the Divine Presence find its way in:
Before you begin to pray,
cast aside that which limits you
and enter the endless world of Nothing.
In prayer turn to God alone
and have no thoughts of yourself at all.
Nothing but God exists for you;
you yourself have ceased to be.
The true redemption of the soul can only happen
as you step outside the body's limits.
(Shemu'ah Tovah 79b-80a, as quoted in Your Word Is Fire: The Hasidic Masters on Contemplative Prayer, Arthur Green and Barry Holtz, eds., Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT, 1993).
Rabbi Ellen J. Lewis is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Jewish Center of Northwest Jersey, and has offices for the practice of therapy in New York, NY and Bernardsville, NJ.