A Different Sort of Religious Experience

The hard science types out there will disagree, but it really wasn’t what I expected at all. In fact, I wasn’t expecting anything as far as I can tell.

Let me go back a bit and lay the groundwork here. My father, alav hashalom, was a very intelligent erudite individual who was also very good with his hands. Although I typically saw him reading a book or the New York Times or something related to school (he was a professional educator); he had a fascination and quick grasp of mechanical things, too. I remember as a little boy stopping by construction sites so that my father could marvel at the machinery and techniques employed.

My mother, every bit as intelligent and an educator as well, is the stereotypical liberal arts type. Song, dance, and theatre are her big interests. She devours books, and did some pretty fair writing in her time. Even in her eighties, she recently produced and directed a pretty serious show through the assisted living place she calls home.

Neither of my parents were outdoorspeople. They can’t figure out where I came from. From a small age I was playing in the local river or swamp (against stern parental warnings). As I got older, skipping school usually meant going off to meditate and write poetry by the Mianus River, rather than partying at someone’s house. As a yeshiva student, Aharon Bier alav hashalom was my hero and my professional aspiration was to be a guide and show people the wildest corners of the Land of Israel, Tanach in hand. As a school teacher, vacations were spent backpacking and fishing wherever was nearby in the American Southwest, British Columbia, or New England. If I had only a day, then a quick hike up a local hill was good, too. I am never so happy as when I take off with a deep or inspiring book in my pack and some time to contemplate Hashem’s creation. The Ramhal, The Nazir, Breslov Hasidus – whatever seems right at the time. Ten days in the wilderness to marvel at the creation ‘round the clock is my idea of rapture.

I never seemed to have my father’s mechanical talent; nor interest, really. I may be the only kid who flunked shop class for lack of aptitude. Math and physics made no sense to me, despite my interest in science. But put me in the beit midrash or out in the mountains, and I would figure out what to do with myself. The two places seem to go together naturally in my mind. The Netziv and the Radak are among those who point out how our forefathers would especially go out into the wilderness to meditate and seek inspiration. The Rambam says that one can achieve love of God (in the Mishneh Torah in the relevant halachot) by going out and examining/contemplating Hashem’s creation. To me, the outdoors guy, this makes easy sense. I once had a conversation with a couple in the mountains north of Vancouver, BC about this very effect. ‘Did you ever find yourself so inspired by the countryside that a sense of gratitude just welled up within you?’ ‘Yes, of course.’ ‘Well, WHO do you think you were grateful to?’ They got the point immediately.

So there I was, in my garage during the winter about three years ago. My 30 year old motorbike and main transportation was sorely in need of upkeep and serious repair. I know next to nothing about this stuff. So I set to it with shop manuals and the ongoing determined help of friends on an internet forum, SOHC4. (By the way, this incident is one of many that showed me how the internet is an amazing conduit for hesed ‘round the world. Complete strangers with little or no agenda helping each other daily with advice, encouragement, and material goods. Amazing. We see the inherent good that Hashem created within us.) For eleven days straight I worked on the tortured wiring on this bike, and a few more days on the carbureters. I was in a world I knew nothing about. Interestingly, I found the time therapeutic and focussing.

Then it began to happen. No, I wasn’t delerious. ;-) I was, however, very focussed on the tasks of diagnosing and repairing the electrical and mechanical issues with my ride. I started to realize, in the midst of working on the bike, how the principles taught in physics lay behind all the engineering I was taking advantage of and trying to cooperate with. Math became the language to express the ideas. But it didn’t stop there. I didn’t just come away with an appreciation for Mr. Sochiro Honda. I deeply sensed how all this finely tuned system of forces balance with each other in an undeniable and carefully scripted display of Hashem’s will. It is amazing to begin to see the interplay of factors like flow, turbulence and vacuum and how they can serve us when engineered into devices like a carbureter. A carefully engineered machine is an expression of the various forces through which God operates our world. All these factors are available to us for our benefit. Physics, Chemistry, the language of Math all express how the Divine will filters into the material world. God made it all.

I really don’t know how to describe the amazement that enveloped me, sitting next to my bike with greasy hands and realizing Hashem’s rule in His world. All I can say is it was a truly religious experience. I walked from the garage back into the house a different person. I have never been the same again. Today I look at these machines, and my limited understanding and appreciation of them immediately awakens a sense of awe like I feel in the mountains. Hashem’s will is expressed in myriad ways in all his creation and how it works. I don’t know how I missed it before; but I have never been quite the same again. I am truly grateful to our Creator that little window was opened and expanded how I am awed by His mastery and presence.

Rav Kook writes regarding the verse ‘know Him in all your ways’ that whatever ‘way’ we happen to be on or engaged in at the moment, we must know Hashem. Maybe this moment of enlightenment was a bit of what he means. It certainly wasn’t when or where I would have looked for a religious experience.

5 comments on “A Different Sort of Religious Experience

  1. Thanks for the comments.

    Larry, point taken. A friend with much experience in meditation of different cultures and also a serious talmid hacham pointed out certain commonplaces. He posits that deep successful meditations of many sorts all lead to a resulting experience of an overarching unity in all of Creation – the presence of God, if you will. He used Zen and Catholic mystics as two examples that he knows something about. The difference is that Torah provides an articulate framework so that the experience isn’t vague, but results in a greater recognition of Hashem specifically. What is interesting here, is that I wasn’t meditating in a ‘usual’ sense of intending to do so. Yet there was a focussed meditative quality to what I was doing, and it resulted in a specific impression of a heightened appreciation of Hashem’s will expressed in His creation. And, of course, other paths can tragically involve or strengthen avodah zarah/foreign worship.

    David, I understand that experience well. Your mention of Asimov (I would add other classic author/scientists like Clarke) is interesting since I’ve always enjoyed his work. The wonder and excitement is there indeed, but lacks the focussing lense of Sinai. Your last line is food for thought.

    Shanah Tovah!

  2. Rabbi Sher,

    A great article! Although I have a mostly litvishe background I enjoyed reading about your journey and I can relate to your love for all those eclectic sources of inspiration.

    I’ve always been inspired by the physics and chemistry of the world around us, and also the physiology when you consider living things. Even before I was religious I was drawn to a pure research field due to my love of science (and science fiction). One can find a world of interest in a grain of sand! Authors like Isaac Asimov could convey this excitement, without connecting it to a religious experience at all.

    However, without emunah one lacks any true feeling of gratitude, and perhaps that’s the insight you conveyed to that couple in the woods.

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