עַבְדֵי זְמָן עַבְדֵי עֲבָדִים הֵם –
עֶבֶד אֲדֹנָי הוּא לְבַד חָפְשִׁי:
Slaves of time are slaves of slaves;
Only God’s slaves are free.
Rabbi Yehudah Halevi
All I wanted to do during my teenage years was to break free from my jail. I thought that once I got to university, things would be better; but no. Instead, I was becoming more acutely aware of how much I, and everyone around me, was living like an automatic robot, responding without questions to conditioning which I was only vaguely starting to glimpse. I quit school, joined the army and resolved that as soon as my military service was over, I would travel to India, find myself a guru at whose feet I would study, and become free.
Instead of going to India, India came to me. In 1973, one year into my military service, I learnt the practice of Transcendental Meditation. Within three weeks of practice I had a very clear vision that I would become a teacher of this meditation and that I would work closely with its founder, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who lived in Europe at the time.
All this seemed quite strange in Israel of those days. It would be years before young Israelis would swarm India in their post-military wandering and become familiar with the teachings of the East. Equally strange was the fact that the more I practiced this Hindu meditation, the more interested I became in Jewish texts, which were hitherto considered by me to be irrelevant relics of the past. The more I delved into the depths of my own consciousness, the more the sacred texts—the Bible, the writings of Rabbi Nachman from Breslov, and others—seemed relevant and compelling, although I could not exactly explain why.
In retrospect I believe that the practice of meditation allowed the awakening in me of a different mode of awareness and of knowing, which, as a modern secular Israeli I had not been exposed to. It was the mode of knowing that was embodied by Elisha, whose only wish from the departing Elijah was: וִיהִי נָא פִּי שְׁנַיִם בְּרוּחֲךָ אֵלָי – “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” (2 Kings 2,9). It was that the Mishnah sages were referring to when they said: יְהִי בֵיתְךָ בֵּית וַעַד לַחֲכָמִים, וֶהֱוֵי מִתְאַבֵּק בַּעֲפַר רַגְלֵיהֶם, וֶהֱוֵי שׁוֹתֶה בַצָּמָא אֶת דִּבְרֵיהֶם – “May your home be a place of assembly for the wise, may you dust yourself with the dust of their feet and may you drink their word with great thirst” (Avot 1,4). Now, with my awareness sensing the scent of this intuitive mode of cognition, the scriptures resounded to me with greater depth.
I did join my guru at the end of my military service and I ended up spending almost 25 years “at his feet.” Maharishi recognized early by my passion for sacred texts and encouraged me to study the sacred writings and mystical ideas of the world’s major traditions. It was an arduous path of love: through attuning to his thinking and feeling, intuitive knowledge and understanding started flowering in me and I felt the dawning of space between me and my neuroses. With time I acquired deeper insights into the mystical dimensions of the various religions. I also came increasingly to the realization that, after everything is said and done, I am fundamentally a Jew.
* * *
The path of gaining knowledge through surrender to a teacher is not for the faint of heart. There are obstacles, from within and without: firstly, as products of the postmodern era that assigns every truth a relative, context-bound value, many of us find it difficult to commit to a single path. Furthermore, enough evidence has accumulated in world history to convince us of the potential dangers of leaders to whom one surrenders, whether political or spiritual.
And yet, I believe that if we want to embrace spiritual life in earnest, surrender is central. I have derived inspiration from the fact that in both the Jewish and Muslim traditions, in which slavery was part of culture, calling someone a slave was a grave insult, but adding the suffix “god” to the word “slave” transformed it from a curse to a blessing. In both traditions, calling one’s child “God’s slave” ( Ovadiah in Hebrew or Abdallah in Arabic) is considered auspicious.
It has been more than 45 years since I started this spiritual adventure. My path has taken many a turn, some blissful and some treacherous, some productive and some seemingly less so; but all have made me wiser. My ideas of what surrender means have changed and evolved over the years. As I look back, I feel grateful that I was brave enough (or reckless enough, take your pick) to choose this unusual path, which allowed me the rare privilege of intimate company with extraordinary men and women. It gave me access to an experiential taste of freedom that I only intuited when I started, and the fragrance of which has been growing daily in my life.