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.
On my own spiritual journey I've discovered that every person is blessed and holy, that each of us is touched with a spark of the divine. And I believe and teach that we are expected to search our Jewish tradition for help in finding our own path to God.
Judaism reminds me that access to God is not through an intermediary; that rabbis are teachers, not links to God; and that since Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob each had a personal relationship with God (and a private name for God), so can I.
It is true that times were different more than 3,000 years ago, as we learn in this week's portion, Bemidbar, which tells us that some were chosen to be closer to God than others. The latter were even empowered to keep other Israelites—using the threat of the penalty of death—from approaching the Tabernacle, the place where God's Presence dwelt. Take a minute and ask yourself, "How would I feel if I were excluded, told by a fellow Israelite, who is backed by God's word in the Torah, that I wasn't allowed even to approach God?"
But we must remember that people grew close to God in different ways back then. The norm was animal sacrifice, called korban, which can be translated as "getting close." We brought our finest animals to be sacrificed, and followed the practice of ritual slaughter outlined in the Book of Leviticus in order to get close to God. We believed that God liked the sweet smell of the burning animal flesh, and we knew that specially chosen individuals—the tribe of Levi (Levites) and the priests—were commanded to carry out this intricate get-close-to-God ritual.
Our portion teaches us that in order to concentrate on their sacred duties, the levites were excused from the census that was used for military conscription and were honored with the choicest camping spot, right next to the Tabernacle in the center of the camp. The Talmud calls it the "Camp of the Shechinah," the place where the Presence of God dwelt. It was also the safest place to be in the event of an enemy attack!
Since then Judaism has evolved and with it our responsibility to seek conscious ways to move toward God. No longer can other people bring us—through ritual practice—closer to God. Instead we must study, pray, meditate, and search to find our own ever-evolving path to become that which God intends us to be in this world. There are no animals, no priests, no levites, no sacrificial fires. There is nobody to do it for us. We have only those who can teach us about the path (they took) and those who can walk with us on our journey. How exciting!
Daniel W. Bennett, R.J.E., is the former executive director of the Central Agency for Jewish Education of Colorado.
B'midbar, Numbers 1:1-4:20
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,028-1,043; Revised Edition, pp. 897-916;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 787-814