Selichot, 2005

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.
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.
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.