We gathered at 8:30 for coffee and excellent home-baked pastries at our house. This set a tone of hospitality and comfort intended to bring people into a place of reflection and trust. Since many arrived early, by nine we went outside to the labyrinth which had a light shining upon it suspended from a tree. We also set out six tiki torches around the circumference. Roughly 50 people stepped into the labyrinth to form a circle. I stood in the center with two children holding the candle and spices. I spoke of the sadness accompanying the ending of the Shabbat and how the wine, fragrance, and torch-like braided candle encourage and empower us to enter into the world of activity again. We also wait for Elijah, the one who will announce the messiah, on this day, a hope which also strengthens us as Shabbat leaves. At 9:20 we returned to the house and sat in the living room for a teaching.
This is the night of forgiveness, a step essential to the healing of the heart. Selichot, the penitential prayers said from the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, ask God for forgiveness. If we want forgiveness, we have to offer it and ask for our own. As we are merciful, so is God merciful to us.
The word for the process of self-examination, making amends, and asking forgiveness is called teshuvah, which means both return and answer. It carries circularity in its definition. And the word for forgiveness, mechila, is from the root, muchol, which means circle. We turn within ourselves to find answers; it’s our creative process. And when we enter the courageous and creative work of self-judgment, we too turn within for answers. C.P. Snow described the process best when he wrote, “I like the man who takes the trouble to know himself, is appalled, and then forgives himself.” Our process is exactly right, with the addition of making direct amends to the one we have harmed. To face ourselves, to face the one we’ve hurt, to say I’m sorry, is so hard! It reflects teamwork. First, the individual has to choose the path, then we gather as a community to strengthen each other to walk it, and finally, we recognize that the lightness of heart that follows the deed is God’s gift. I don’t believe it is solipsistic to say that the reason we ask forgiveness is not only because it’s the right thing, but because it frees our hearts.
It is equally difficult to forgive those who have harmed us. Yet if we harbor resentment within us, it’s as if we’re keeping a thief in our hearts who steals our well-being, our joy, and our strength. Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting, it doesn’t mean accepting. It simply means that I will no longer take responsibility for your behavior by being victim to it. I sever that relationship to you when I forgive you for what you have done to me. Offering forgiveness will bring the grace that asking forgiveness brings. Most importantly, by behaving in these ways, we demonstrate that we are in God’s image, the One who forgives and pardons abundantly.
We’ve seen the circularity of the penitential process in the words teshuvah and mechilah. There is a third understanding. When Samuel judged, he left his home in Ramah and traveled all around Israel. The word for his circuit is uteshuvato, “and he returned to it (Ramah).” One might think that each step he took from home took him farther away, yet the rabbis said no, each step was on his way home. So it is with us. No matter how far we travel, we are always on our return to God. The day after Yom Kippur may seem a step away from the power and lift of these days, yet it is also a step closer to next year’s powerful days.
With all these references to the circle of introspection and drawing towards God, we now look at the labyrinth, an ancient spiritual tool to help us in both dynamics. It is a healing instrument and tonight we ask for specific healing from anger, hurt, and our own wrongdoing. The labyrinth empties us of internal noise, stills us, takes us to our center, and leads us to return to where we began with a new heart.
Lauren Artress, an Episcopal priest, recognized the power of the labyrinth about ten years ago and is responsible for our labyrinth as well as thousands newly springing everywhere. Ours is based on the Chartres model, which frankly gave me problems for introducing it into a Jewish context. It does have the cruciform, after all. But–nothing is new. Chartres’ labyrinth, made for those pilgrims who couldn’t get to Jerusalem in the twelfth century, has its origins with the Cretin seven-circuit labyrinth built of stone 4000 years ago. The Kabbalists has some circular pattern involving eleven circuits to connect the ten emanations plus the Source of the potencies. Most believe that the eleven-circuit Chartres model is based upon a pattern from the First Temple. What ultimately persuaded me to include the labyrinth in the Selichot evening was that Gay’s original synagogue in Houston, Reform Beth Israel with its 3000 members, was using the labyrinth for their Selichot. I thank them for giving us the courage to innovate.
And innovation it is, because, despite our knowing about the presence of labyrinths, nothing in any tradition describes how they were used. The main reason for this is that all mystical traditions have always been regarded suspiciously. They are associated with the feminine from the beginning, and when witches began to be burned, it was the end of labyrinths. It is up to us to resurrect the ancient tradition as a path to healing, co-creation with God, and self-knowledge. When we wandered for forty years in the wilderness, we took a labyrinthine path, not a straight line, to the Promised Land. These nomadic years were the purest, clearest, and best time in Jewish history, when no one claimed the land or anything as theirs. God was close and we were paying attention.
I invite you to step outside in groups of ten. As you stand at the threshold, take a breath, and exhale to create space within yourself for the experience. You may walk it as a meditation, fully attentive to whatever occurs within an without. Or you may enter with a question as deep and inchoate as “Why am I here?” “What do You want of me?” to “How can I get this next book finished?” If the entry is the place of emptying to find stillness, the center is the heart, the core of our being. Here we may pray, visiting each of the six petals in the rose. The Shema is six words; an exercise of saying each word in each petal, resting against the bosom and rock of each word, may be useful. In fact, some say a verse of Torah as a mantra. Even the word, forgive, in Hebrew or English, may work. Happy Journey!”
Under the stars twenty or so people at any given time spent an hour walking very slowly and deeply, listening to meditative Hebrew music with words from the liturgy. I had talked about the center as the heart, the place for formal or spontaneous prayer. I also talked about Moses climbing up the mountain until he reached the One, and then he had to return as he came. So it is with us. Many spent a long time in the flower.
I stood at the door to the house welcoming people as they returned for the Selichot service. Their faces told me their experience. If they weren’t radically amazed they were at least somewhat amazed. At 10:30 we gathered–about six had left with children because of the hour–and we began singing the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy before the open ark. If I were a better singer or I’d had a hazzan, I’d have spent most of the half hour of prayer in chanting these words along with the Aveinu Malkeinu and Hashivenu. Instead, I chose strong readings that made it difficult for any of us to believe that they were written for someone else. My intention was for each of us to claim our sin, be it anger, bystanding, stubbornness, living without heart connection, and most of all, not having faith that we can change. Time to afflict the comfortable as well as comfort the afflicted.
Before Aveinu Malkeinu, I spoke of the protection we may have felt as small children in our parents’ arms. I talked about my father taking me into the vast ocean with crashing waves over my head and feeling a safety I long for now. Our Father, Our King, we say to the One of all power, “Hold me, protect me, keep me from drowning.” I invited people to leave singing the melody softly to themselves, without talking to each other, until they got home. Let them keep for themselves the experience of the evening. By 11:15 everyone was on their way home, and I hope it was not only physical home.