Veterans: Sara Yoheved Rigler: From New Jersey to Jerusalem
Rigler calls her children, born when she was 40 and 46, a 'double miracle.'
By MOJI OHEB GERSH
In the 1960s, when many Americans were opening themselves up to experimentation, Sara Yoheved Rigler was sharply aware of the price tag attached to these lifestyles.
On her first visit to India, at 20, she asked a guru where she could find a compass that would help her make correct decisions. "Let the Scriptures be your guide," was his reply. She certainly hadn't noticed any Scriptures at her local Conservative synagogue. The guru advised her to listen to her inner voice.
Not long after earning her psychology degree from Brandeis University, she took refuge in an ashram in the woods of eastern Massachusetts, where she spent her time meditating, managing the ashram and later writing a book about her guru's guru.
Fifteen years passed, but Vedanta philosophy had not yet delivered the goods. So when her guru, Mataji, rewarded her with $2,000 and some time off, she continued her spiritual search in the Torah institutions of New York and Jerusalem. What had gotten her interested in Judaism was a talk given by an Orthodox rabbi invited to the ashram to speak on "Love of God, even unto Madness." Rigler "hadn't known that Judaism had anything to do with love of God." After only a few months of intense questioning, she recognized her compass.
"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," she writes in one of her articles, anthologized in Heaven on Earth. She never returned to live in the US.
Rigler's father, a pharmacist, was born to immigrants from Odessa in 1903. "He daily delivered prescriptions to the homes of people who were too sick to come for them," she notes. He always managed to lend money and offer help to anyone in need, Rigler says, adding that during the Six Day War, he took out a $4,000 loan to donate to the Israel Emergency Fund.
During the race riots of the 1970s, her father's pharmacy "emerged completely unscathed," while the whole Camden business district was ravaged. According to one eyewitness, he had been spared after one of the rioters shouted, "Don't touch that store. He's our friend."
Her mother's maternal grandparents had immigrated from Lithuania and Latvia. Rigler's mother began supporting them during the Depression, after her father's heart attack, and helped put her brother through medical school.
When Rigler got to Jerusalem, the family that hosted her offered to take her to the Amshinover Rebbe. Greatly impressed, she later made an appointment with the rebbe to discuss her doubts about living a spiritual life while raising children.
"For 15 years I had invested myself in a celibate path, having been taught by my guru that sexual relationships dissipated spiritual energy and that children were little noisemakers who made it impossible to meditate," she wrote.
As she walked into the rebbe's living room, she noticed a baby crying in his crib. She watched on as the rebbe got up, picked up the baby and put him on his lap.
The rebbe, then a father of eight, was living proof that, contrary to her beliefs, child rearing was perhaps one of the main paths to spirituality. This idea was a comfort to Rigler, who had been put off by how some Buddhist teachers preached celibacy while having affairs with their students.
Another figure who jolted Rigler out of such beliefs was barren Rebbetzin Chaya Sara Kramer, the sole Holocaust survivor out of her entire family and survivor of Mengele's experiments, who had patiently raised many abandoned children. In Holy Woman, Rigler describes how before she had had a chance to discuss her personal concerns, the rebbetzin took her prayer book and leafed through until she found Ethics of the Fathers. She proceeded to quote one aphorism from the sages advising Jews not to separate themselves from the community, and another that claimed that "beauty, strength, wealth, honor, wisdom... and children... befit the righteous and befit the world." If these wise words had survived through so many generations, Rigler had to take note.
Jerusalem was where Rigler found not only her spiritual path and home, but also her spouse, a musician from California to whom she became engaged after only 11 days. Due to some medical problems, doctors were not optimistic about her getting pregnant. The couple's two children, born when she was 40 and 46, she considers a "double miracle," largely credited to the Amshinover Rebbe's guidance, prayer and encouragement. Her son is currently studying in yeshiva and her daughter works and lives at home.
After the success of Holy Woman, Rigler published Lights from Jerusalem, a collection of inspirational essays which previously appeared in Aish.com. Recently, she published a third book, entitled Battle Plans: How to Fight the Yetzer Hara. Co-authored with her teacher of 20 years, Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller, the book's aim is to help people free themselves from the grip of destructive emotions, such as anger and jealousy, which take hold when one's guard is down. These strategies are drawn from true stories and the teachings of Mussar (refining one's character) and hassidic masters.
Rigler currently lives in a 900-year-old building in the Old City. She begins her day by sitting alone and talking to God in her own words and in formal prayer in the Western Wall tunnels, followed by home duties, writing and sometimes learning mussar.
Many seekers on their way to India are sent to Rigler for "rerouting." Instead of trying to change their mind, she informs them about local schools. "Many decide not to go. The ones who go, India disappoints them and they come back," notes Rigler. Nevertheless, she feels that her time at the ashram wasn't a waste, since meditation helped her quiet her mind and experience "total oneness." But cosmic consciousness doesn't necessarily lead to self-transformation, she points out. "What you do changes who you are, not what you know."
"My goal is to get close to God by refining my character traits; to be conscious of God in minute to minute happenings of my life," she says. Rigler is more than glad to show the way to other seekers.
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