Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon: The Labyrinth of T’shuvah

I have always loved mazes.  When I was in Hawaii a few years ago, I visited the giant pineapple maze of the Dole Plantation.  When studying in England, I visited the amazing hedge maze of Hampton Court.  And while on recent trip to Montreal, I was thrilled to discover that an abandoned warehouse on the waterfront had been transformed into Le Labyrinthe.

Recently, however, I discovered a whole new type of labyrinth.  This summer, while at a wedding in the Texas Hill Country with my fiancée, Laurel, I came across the most wonderful thing.  It was a simple path of stones that wound though a circle in an amazing geometric pattern.  There were no choices of which direction to go.  No difficult riddles to solve or giant scary trolls waiting to capture me.  It was just a simple path to walk.  As I walked the path to the center of the circle and then back out again, I found my mind wandering.  Thinking of my life, how I had come to this place and where I was going.  I left the labyrinth feeling refreshed and renewed.

In Greek mythology, the Labyrinth was an elaborate structure designed and built by the legendary artificer Daedalus for King Minos of Crete.  Its function was to hold the Minotaur, a creature that was half man and half bull and was eventually killed by the Athenian hero, Theseus. Daedalus had made the Labyrinth so cunningly that he himself could barely escape it after he built it.  Theseus, however, was aided by Ariadne, who provided him with a sword and a ball of red fleece thread that she was spinning, so that he could find his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth.

In colloquial English, the word labyrinth is generally synonymous with a maze, but many contemporary scholars observe a distinction between the two: a maze refers to a complex branching (multicursal) puzzle with choices of path and direction; while a single-path (unicursal) labyrinth has only a single, non-branching path, which leads to the center. A labyrinth in this sense has an unambiguous route to the center and back and is not designed to be difficult to navigate.

An unambiguous route to the center and back and is not designed to be difficult to navigate… What a beautiful metaphor for our process of repentance.  Tonight, and the next 10 days, the Yamim Nora’im focus us, like the path of the labyrinth to return to our center, to discover who we truly are and then to return to our world, renewed and refreshed.  And it is not designed to be difficult; the process of t’shuvah is accessible to all of us – all we have to do is follow the path.

At this time of year our attentions naturally fall toward changing the world and doing tikkun olam.  Tikkun olam literally translates to repair of the world.  It implies in some way that the world is broken and in need of repair.  However, tonight, I ask you all to think not of tikkun olam, repair of the world, but think of tikkun hanefeshTikkun hanefesh literarily means repair of our souls.  Like tikkun olam this phrase presupposes that we are all broken in some way.  And more than ever, at this time of year, are in need of healing.

So, forget about changing the world for just a moment and concentrate more on changing yourself. All too often in this world, we forget to take care of ourselves in so many ways in favor of placing all of our energy on the outward actions of helping our friends, families and the greater community. I think many times this is a way of covering up and hiding from the parts of ourselves we don’t necessarily want to deal with.  It is a way of ignoring our own faults by dealing with the faults of the world.  It is a way of dealing with our guilt and fears without really dealing with them.  It is a way of distracting ourselves from the true purpose of the High Holy Days.

Our task over the next ten days is to walk our own personal labyrinth of reflection; to take the time to walk the path toward our spiritual center; to engage in the holy act of tikkun hanefesh.  To truly look inward, discover the brokenness in our innermost selves and work to repair it.

Currently, in Israel at the Ein Dor Museum there is an exhibit set up called the Peace Labyrinth.  This labyrinth is helping young Israelis and Palestinians find their way through their maze to a better future.  It is designed to challenge the prejudices that children hold and help them resolve conflict peacefully.

Youngsters wind their way through the labyrinth, stopping to negotiate its 40 interactive exhibits.  At each stop along the path there are photographic images, sounds, mirrors and games.  Each exhibit raises dilemmas or asks questions that youngsters confront daily, guiding them in an exploration of the limits to tolerance, rules of freedom and different ways of resolving conflict within the Israeli context.

Like the Israeli and Arab children in the Peace Labyrinth, we too embark on a journey tonight into our own labyrinth of tikkun hanefesh.  We are on a journey toward our true selves.  And on this journey we stop to think back upon the year.  We think about our words, our relationships and our actions.  We stop at the exhibits that were the events of this past year and contemplate how we can change for the better in this coming year.

The prayers of our service and our whole Jewish tradition are the path that guides us through the labyrinth.  And tonight, Rabbi Amnon of Mayence is our Ariadne, and his prayer, the Un’ton’tokef, is our ball of red fleece to guide us toward our center and back.

Rabbi Amnon wrote that, “T’fillah, t’shuvah and tzedekah. Prayer, repentance and charity,” are needed at this time of year to, “temper judgment’s severe decree.”  He has already given us the map to navigate our path.

T’shuvah comes from the Hebrew root, shin – vav – bet, meaning to return. Repentance is not just about saying sorry to your loved ones and making amends – it is about changing who you are; about returning to yourself. T’shuvah is about listening to that pure soul inside of you and returning to who you were meant to be. People say t’shuvah means “atonement.”  I prefer to read the word as, “at-one-ment.”  Because making ourselves whole again, being at-one, is our goal.

T’fillah means prayer. But this comes from the Hebrew root, pei – lamed – lamed, which connotes some sort of action. To pray, l’hitpalel, is a reflexive verb and can be translated as inward action. Prayer, therefore, should be less about saying a whole bunch of words in Hebrew that you may not understand or connect with, and more about taking the time to do some serious self accounting – inward action.

And then and only then after turning back to our neshamot t’horot, our pure soul at the center of our own person labyrinths, and doing tikkun hanefesh, seriously working on improving ourselves, will we be able to venture back out into the world to engage in the important act of tzedekah. Only after we are free from prejudice and narrow-mindedness will we be able to truly care for the rest of the world.

Our whole prayer services over this High Holy Day period are a labyrinth; the path that we walk in order to free our minds and souls to undertake the task of atonement.

Many people say the most the important prayer of the High Holy Day season is Avinu Malkeinu, or maybe one of the confessional prayers, Al Chet or Vidui.  I, however, disagree; I think the most important prayer we recite during the High Holy Days is actually a prayer that we read every morning in the siddur Elohai N’shama. Elohai n’shama shenatata bi, t’horah hi. My God, the soul you have given me is pure.

I cannot stress enough how important it is for all of us to remember this. Elohai n’shama shenatata bi, t’horah hi. The soul you have given me is pure. There is a piece inside of all of us that no matter what we do wrong, no matter how much we mess up, will never be tainted.

You are not your just body and you are also not just your mind – you know this – you know that there is another part of who you are – that still small voice inside of you.  Use the labyrinth of our Jewish tradition to help you find that pure center and rebuild from there for this New Year.

Labyrinths are used to help achieve a contemplative state. Walking among the turnings, one loses track of direction and of the outside world, and thus quiets the mind.  That is what our prayer service is all about.  Use the melodies of the nigguns and the words of our prayers as mantras to help quite your mind.

The labyrinth is also a metaphor for the entire Exodus narrative and our wandering through the wilderness.  Like the ancient Israelites, we are all in exile is some way and looking for redemption.  We all have our own deserts that we must cross and face throughout our lives.

The journey from Egypt to Israel is quite short, really.  But it took the Israelites 40 years to cross the desert because they needed time to walk the path that God laid out for them.  It was during their years of wandering that they became a people.  They dealt with their issues of bondage and oppression and became the people they were meant to be.  And with a labyrinth, one could go right to the center in a matter of seconds instead of following the winding pathways but following the path shows us that we need to give ourselves the time and space to heal our broken spirits.  So much of the work of tikkun hanefesh is in the journey itself.  There are no shortcuts to true atonement.

As the famous writer, Ursula K. Le Guin said, “It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.”  So much of the self reflection and soul grappling that we engage in during the High Holy Days is done for its own sake.  The end result of becoming a better person in the coming year is important but more important is the path that we take to get there.

When we conclude our High Holy Day period in a short ten days time, with the Yom Kippur Ne’ilah service, the gates of repentance are closed and we begin to return to our daily lives.  We exit the labyrinth at the same place that we entered but we are changed.  T. S. Eliot once wrote that as human beings, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

My hope for all of us in the coming days is that we enter this spiritual labyrinth, that we follow the path to our center and discover who we truly are and were meant to be.  And then, when we are ready we can return back to our lives, refreshed, renewed and viewing the world in a whole new way.

The great Hasidic Rav Zusia was dying and all his students were gathered around him, praying and crying. Then Zusia began to cry and one of his students said, “Rav Zusia, why are you crying? You have lived a righteous life, you have raised up students, and you will be received into the world to come.” Rav Zusia answered his students, “I am crying because now I understand that God will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Abraham, or why were you not Moses?’ God will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusia?’ And I will not know what to say.”

This High Holy Day period…

May we take the time to walk the labyrinth.

May way work to find our true selves.

May we try our hardest to pursue our potential

And when the day comes when we are asked, “Why were you not Zusia?”

May we all know what to say.