> Spirituality > Spiritual Odysseys

Arriving At Sinai

May 9, 2009 | by Sara Yoheved Rigler

One woman's search for her life's compass.

I was sitting cross-legged on the floor of my guru's receiving room amidst a dozen or so other disciples, all Indians. A couple meters in front of me, on his divan, was my octogenarian guru, the renowned pundit Sri Gopinath Kaviraj, retired principal of the Varanasi Sanskrit College.

I had come to say good-bye. After a year in India, I would be leaving the next morning. My guru had taught me about the different levels of reality: physical, emotional, mental, astral, and spiritual. He had also taught me to meditate, which was the way to access the highest, spiritual level of reality.

I approached the spiritual world like an awestruck tourist.

Having been raised in a Conservative Judaism where God and soul were never mentioned, I approached the spiritual world like an awestruck tourist whose guide had led her to a fantastical domain never mentioned in the standard guidebooks. Meditation was the key to the otherwise impenetrable gate of that world. I would rise at four o'clock in the morning, when the predawn stillness lent wings to my not-yet-cluttered mind, and meditate for an hour, sometimes experiencing an ecstasy which made me loath to return to the plodding heaviness of the physical world.

Now, at this, my last audience with my guru, I was eager to ask a question that tormented me. That year I had found a goal to which to dedicate my life: God-consciousness. Yet how was I supposed to navigate my life in such a way that I would not get sidetracked or lost in the maze of problems and choices which surrounded me?

For one, I had wanted to remain in India, but my father insisted that I return to Brandeis University to finish my final year. And then what? Should I go on to Psych Grad School, as I had always planned I would? The academic world now seemed vapid and supercilious compared with the profound light of the spiritual world. And what about my handsome Indian boyfriend? My parents had never let me date a non-Jew. Was marrying my Hindu love worth the anguish it would cause my parents?

After a quarter hour of answering questions in Bengali, my guru finally turned to me, and asked in English, "So, you are leaving tomorrow?"

I nodded glumly, and fired my question: "When choices present themselves to me in life, how will I know what to choose?" I was asking him for a compass. I felt like my ship was embarking on a long, perilous journey. How would I find my goal when the clouds of confusion obscured the stars?

I had too many friends who ambled aimlessly through their lives, bumping into disastrous consequences along the way. Their lives were splattered with false starts and failed relationships, and they changed their college majors as often as they changed their shirts – every month.

I abhorred the modus vivendi of trial-and-error. It was the heyday of the sixties, when the debate raged about whether LSD caused permanent brain or chromosomal damage. The drug was too new to study its long-term effects. How many of my brilliant and creative friends experimented with it, as if their future mental acuity or their children's was worth the gamble! I, on the other hand, was goal-oriented, with too scrupulous a sense of efficiency to waste years of my life or my emotional well-being on wrong turns. I wanted a compass.

My guru fixed me with his gaze and replied, "Let the scriptures be your guide."

"The scriptures?" I thought, incredulously. "What scriptures? I have no scriptures!"

I knew that Sri Kaviraj-ji himself was an orthodox Brahmin, who followed the injunctions of the Vedas. Rumor had it that he had disowned his only son for marrying out of caste. But in the year I had been studying with him, he had never once mentioned the Hindu scriptures.

Did I have any scriptures, I wondered, quickly canvassing my life. Surely he couldn't mean the Bible! Growing up, I used to attend my Conservative synagogue every Shabbos and read the boring apologetics of the Hertz commentary on the weekly Torah portion. Surely there was no wisdom for living, no compass there.

"I have no scriptures," I replied meekly.

"You have no scriptures?" he commiserated, as if I had told him I lacked a pancreas or a kidney. "Well, then, you'll have to be guided by your inner voice."

The trouble with the inner voice is that the ego is a great ventriloquist.

My inner voice. He had handed me a compass, but clearly, in his mind, a second-rate one, cheap, imprecise, the kind they sold for fifty cents in the Five-and-Dime, not the state-of-the-art compass they sold in the Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue.

The trouble with the inner voice, I was to learn, is that the ego is a great ventriloquist. What sounded like the inner voice was often no more than the voice of base desire pulling off a good impersonation: "I must do that. It is my destiny. It is God's will for me." And I, hoodwinked, would march off into a bramble patch from which I would manage to extricate myself only with great difficulty, emerging scratched and bleeding.

Intellect vs. Intuition

I got my degree from Brandeis and, the very next day, joined an ashram (Indian spiritual retreat) in the woods of eastern Massachusetts, a mile from the ocean, where I stayed for the next fifteen years. The guru was a 64-year-old Indian woman whom we called Mataji.

Mataji was as enlightened a human being as I had ever met. She moved, and guided all of us, by Divine direction received through meditation. Intuition was the apparatus by which she tuned into the divine will.

Intellect, on the other hand, was disdained as a flawed and limited tool that could probe no higher than the physical world. The intellect, according to Mataji, was a charlatan, which claimed infallibility while in fact it was incapable of transcending the barriers of logic to soar up to the greater truth of paradox, the mystical world beyond the limits of physical reality.

At the ashram, the intellect was an unwelcome intruder.

I had grown up in a middle-class Jewish milieu where intellect, distilled into academic achievement, was everything. Sri Gopinath Kaviraj, too, had spoken to me on the level of intellect, although explaining concepts beyond the grasp of my spiritually untrained mind, like a physicist expounding on the intricacies of atomic structure to a high school freshman.

At the ashram, however, the intellect was an unwelcome intruder that interfered with the quest of pure intuition. When I would ask Mataji questions about Eastern philosophy, she would refuse to answer, deriding me as her "Question Box."

Although the ashram community practiced meditation three times a day, our own inner voices were subservient to Mataji's divinely inspired direction. Over the years, I realized that the guru-as-compass had two drastically opposite features.

On one hand, the guru system had worked for centuries in India because it took the direction of the seeker's spiritual life out of the control of the wildly subjective inner voice, and placed it in the more objective control of a presumably enlightened guru. Even if the guru was not totally enlightened, he or she was likely wiser than the seeker, and almost always more objective about issues that faced the seeker. Thus, even if the guru's advice did not come directly from the fount of divine wisdom, at least it did not come from the subjectivity of the seeker's own ego or desires. Obeying the guru required discipline and self-abnegation, an exercise that was always beneficial to the spiritual aspirant.

On the other hand, the guru, however enlightened, was still a human being, with his or her own subjectivity. While Mataji occasionally ascended in meditation to the ethereal realms and brought back messages for which she was merely the transmitter, most often her direction came from her own intuition, which was filtered through the circumstances of her particular life and culture.

When a devastating blizzard struck New England one winter, causing tidal waves which demolished dozens of homes in the neighboring town of Scituate, the homeless survivors were put up on army cots in the local high school. The radio broadcast appeals for accommodations, especially for the homeless and traumatized elderly. Since the ashram retreat cottages, which housed visiting retreatants during the summer, were empty, I was eager to offer them for the rescue effort. While Mataji was in California at our other ashram, I was the administrative head of the East Coast ashram. Almost as a technicality, I telephoned Mataji for her approval.

She refused. Housing strangers of questionable spiritual vibrations in the retreat cottages, she insisted, would damage the rarified atmosphere of the ashram. In tears, I argued with her. How could she let elderly people, who had just lost their homes, sleep on army cots in a school building? Mataji was adamant. Devastated, I hung up realizing that my Jewish social activism had banged up against the wall of Mataji's Hindu social passivity. Her made-in-India compass had swung to the magnetic pole of her own background and conditioning.

I was not a good disciple. I clashed with Mataji often. Sometimes I was in awe of her ethereal vibrations and genuine humility, and I strove mightily to surrender my arrogant ego to her guidance. At other times, I saw only her human frailty. As her personal secretary, I was in daily, close contact with her. "Familiarity breeds contempt," she often quoted sadly when faced with my rebellion and obstinacy.

As for meditation, the means to achieve my own direct access to the divine, I found it as erratic as drugs. At the ashram we used to say that the difference between drugs and meditation is that drugs will make you high, but the high lasts only as long as the drug. During seventeen years of practicing meditation, I had many times experienced ecstatic highs, complete with revelations of the ultimate Oneness, only to land with a thud as soon as someone intruded into my altered state of consciousness by speaking to me.

The Torah

In late 1984, when I was 36, the book I had been working on for five years, a detailed historical biography of my guru's guru, was published. As a gift, Mataji gave me a two-month leave of absence and $2,000 to go anywhere in the world I wanted. I went to New York City to study Jewish mysticism.

There I found, to my utter astonishment, that the Torah was not, as I had thought, a history of the Jewish people, nor an antiquated compendium of ancient rituals. The Torah, my teachers claimed, was the God-given instruction manual to go with planet Earth. It was, they claimed, God's will for how human beings should conduct their lives, revealed to the entire Jewish nation at Sinai. According to my teachers, even the Oral Law, the commentary that makes the written Torah intelligible, was deduced by the sages according to definite exegetic principles also given at Sinai.

If their claims were indeed true, then, I realized, the Torah was the ultimate compass – objective, directly from God, as immune to human subjectivity as was possible for anything in this finite world.

It seemed implausible to me. How could the infinite God reveal His will in a finite book? But there was something about the sheer objectivity of a book that goaded me to investigate further.

Six weeks into my exploration of Judaism, I found myself in a car enroute to the Catskills. The driver was Rabbi Ezriel Tauber, a middle-aged Hasid with long, black curly payot. A Holocaust survivor, Rabbi Tauber spoke with a thick Polish accent, his every word soaked in love of God and Torah.

We arrived at the last day of a weekend seminar conducted by two Israeli scientists. I slipped into the packed conference room just in time to hear them, both sporting black beards and kipas, telling their personal story. They had been rigorously secular until one night when they attended a party and heard someone holding forth on the unlikely subject of hidden codes in the Torah. These two were tired of religious people making fantastic claims which no one bothered to repudiate. They promised to prove in their labs the next day, by the use of their computers, that the claim was hogwash.

Instead they were disconcerted to discover not only that the codes mentioned were indeed there, but many other secret messages were also embedded at regular intervals throughout the Torah

At this point, the scientists told the hundreds of avid listeners in the Catskill resort, they felt that being true to their own scientific method demanded their acknowledging that the Torah could not have had a human author. Not even Moses sitting atop Mt. Sinai with a P.C. could have embedded codes referring to people and events far in the future. And if it really was God telling them to sanctify Shabbat and eat kosher, integrity demanded that they obey. Thus they became religiously observant.

The seminar continued, with various ingenious speakers presenting different evidence pointing to the likelihood of the Torah's divine authorship.

My intellect was now set free to run and do cartwheels.

I sat there enthralled. If it could be scientifically ascertained that the Torah was from God, then it was the ultimate objective guide for human action-the state-of-the-art compass.

Something started to stir inside me. My intellect, which so often at the ashram had been scolded and sent to sit in the corner, was now set free to run and do cartwheels. We, the audience, were invited to question, challenge, demand proof, pick apart every argument. My intellect was engaged as an ally in the search for spiritual Truth, rather than shunned as a subversive element.

I left the Catskills that evening flushed with the intellectual excitement of the seminar. An hour or two into the drive, however, the awful truth dawned on me: Now that I may have found the compass I had been seeking my whole adult life, I was not at all sure that I wanted to go in the direction it pointed.

I was 37-years-old. The ashram was not only my physical and spiritual home, but also my place of employment and the residence of all my friends. Accepting the dictates of the Torah would require a radical change of lifestyle-a repudiation of so much I held dear, an estrangement from my friends, and the forfeit of whatever standing and prestige I had acquired in the New Age world. I would have to start from scratch as a neophyte Jew. The very idea overwhelmed me.

I returned to New York City that evening virtually convinced that the Torah was the compass God had given the Jewish people. But did that have to include me?

At Sinai

A month later my search took me to Jerusalem. Mataji extended my leave of absence for another two months, and a modest sum of money I had inherited from my grandmother would pay my living expenses. I started studying at Neve Yerushalayim, which was then billed as a "women's yeshiva for baalei-tshuva" – Jews returning to the religious observance of their great-grandparents.

I studied Chumash, halacha, Maimonides, and the weekly parsha. Everything I learned, I loved. I battled with several issues, principally Judaism's ostensible opposition to universalism and feminism, but the depth of my teachers' approach left nothing outside its ken. Here was intellectual brilliance aligned with spiritual profundity. The way of life enjoined by the Torah fit me like a dress that had hung in my closet for decades, ignored as too tight and too old-fashioned; only when I actually tried it on did I find that it fit me perfectly.

Still, my leave of absence was drawing to a close, and my former life beckoned. In the end, all the intellectual proofs in the world could not fortify me enough to leap off the precipice into an unknown future.

One night, sometime after midnight, I went to the Kotel, the Western Wall, the only remains of the Holy Temple, Judaism's holiest site. There I meditated. What was God's will for me?

Sinai, for every Jew, is the moment of saying "Yes" to God.

We speak of the Torah as being given to the Jewish people, like a present that appears on our dining room table one day. In fact, Torah was offered, with the free choice whether or not to accept it. The Torah records that the entire Jewish people, "like one person with one heart," responded to God: "Naaseh v'nishma – We will do and we will understand." Our ancestors unconditionally, wholeheartedly, sight-unseen, committed themselves to following the manifold dictates of the Torah.

Sinai, for every Jew, is the moment of saying "Yes" to God: "Yes, I'll do it on Your terms," "Yes, I'll live the way You want me to," "Yes, I'll accept Your Torah as my guide, even when it is inconvenient or downright difficult."

Late that summer night at the Kotel, I stood at Sinai. I had reached the point where intellect and intuition converged. I meditated and I chose. "Yes," I told God, "I will accept Your Torah, wherever it leads me, whatever it costs me."

That night I fairly floated up the steps from the Kotel to my room in the Jewish Quarter. Instead of feeling saddled by the hundreds of commandments to which I had just committed myself, I felt free and light. After seventeen years, I finally had my own Scriptures.

This article is featured in's book:
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