What is the difference between a maze and a labyrinth?
A maze – as many of us know – is intended to be a structural challenge. Starting from point A, participants are challenged to make it to Point B, while avoiding as many wrong turns as possible, wrong turns that wind-up at potentially costly dead-ends.
Labyrinths, on the other hand, have no dead ends. Instead, they have just one path that twist and turns itself to the center and back again, ending where it began though – because of the journey taken – participants feel and even arguably are different than before.
“So, which one typifies the journey of your life: the maze, or the labyrinth?”
This is the question I have begun to pose to participants of our newest ISJL rabbinic project: The Linda Pinkus Memorial Labyrinth, which is presently in the testing-stage and is slated to be released in early 2014.
And remarkably, in reviving this centuries old practice in Judaism, an interesting pattern has emerged. Among younger adults, an overwhelming majority sees life more like a maze; while among older adults life is likened more to a labyrinth. But, why? What accounts for this difference?
According to the ensuing conversation, younger adults identified with the maze more because the course of life – as they saw it – is dictated by choice. Choose the right way, you are rewarded with success. Choose the wrong way, and you’ll end up squandering precious time and resources.
“Yep,” slowly responded an older gentleman. “But, looking back, you come to see that whether life’s a maze or labyrinth, there’s still only one way through. It’s just that a labyrinth incorporates the dead-ends into the journey as twist and turns of lessons learned that made one’s life interesting to live.”
Whether one is looking forward or back, each has a valued perspective on the course of our human lives. But, what’s life look like from where you stand? Is it more like a maze or labyrinth? I’ll hope you’ll continue this conversation, which may reveal even more meaning about the course of our lives!
On Yom Kippur this year, the few remaining families of the 161-year old congregation of B’nai El in St. Louis, Missouri, entered the large sanctuary of Shaare Emeth. All of the members representing Shaare Emeth’s 1600-plus households simultaneously rose to their feet in honor of the Torahs held in the arms of B’nai El’s remaining few members. They, along with the Torahs, were being welcomed into their new spiritual home.
For those who may not know, B’nai El (established circa 1852) was the first Jewish congregation to build its sacred dwelling west of the Mississippi River. After a brief period of existence as an Orthodox congregation, B’nai El joined the Reform Movement, and in 1874 was among the founding congregations of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now known as the Union for Reform Judaism.
B’nai El was also my hometown congregation.
I say, “was,” because – as of this year – B’nai El closed its doors, due to a great decline in membership over recent decades. Facing this moment has not been easy for any of us. Yet, thanks to a dedicated board and a compassionate interim rabbi, the congregation of B’nai El made thoughtful, though difficult, decisions that brought great honor to its history, ensuring its lasting legacy.
These brave acts included offering me (as a son of the congregation) the complete contents of their Sisterhood Judaica Shop. As their Sisterhood president Maryellen McSweeny told me: “Just because we are closing doesn’t mean that we can’t still make a difference, an impact in the Jewish world. Please take these items to impact your work with small congregations in the South.”
In B’nai El’s name, I have done just that. During a Bat Mitzvah service in the Mississippi Delta, a brilliant young lady received a beautiful B’nai El tallit. Every time she wraps herself in it, the generations of B’nai El embrace her. During a funeral in Alabama, the mourners received a special yahrzeit candle holder. Every year they light it, memories of both their loved one and the congregation will be illuminated.
And, during a Shabbat service with the small college town congregation of Am Shalom in Bowling Green, Kentucky, I noticed that the Torah was without a yad for reading. Upon my return to the office, I went to the ISJL closet filled with B’nai El’s generous donations. From it, I pulled out a yad. I sent it to Am Shalom with the message, “May it continue to point y’all forward with God’s loving touch in this coming year.”
Am Shalom’s president, Laura Jacobs, wrote the following to Maryellen McSweeny in response:
We very much appreciate you sending us your yad. We are a very small congregation of about 15 families. We meet about one time per month for social and religious events. We are lay-led and so appreciate Rabbi Klaven and all he brings to our small congregation. As you know, he is a special person, making Judaism come alive for the young and old. We are blessed he chose to share your yad with us. Know that we will put it to good use. I’ve attached the pictures of some of our members on Yom Kippur with the yad on our Torah. L’shana tovah to you!
What I have come to appreciate even more through connecting some of the remaining items from my hometown congregation of B’nai El to other Jewish communities in need is that our story does not end when we find a place to call home. Rather, just as it was for our ancestors, coming home marks the next chapter of our development, as we continue to honor our history and live our legacy.
Image above: B’nai El’s Yad brings new blessings to its new home at Am Shalom.
This piece is by Education Fellow Amanda Winer.
As I was flying home from a recent trip to one of the amazing communities I get to visit as an ISJL Education Fellow, a hilarious thought came to my mind: sometimes, the only DOWN time I get is when I’m UP in the air.
That seemed meaningful – and made me think of what other meaning I might find if I put my mind to it. So I grabbed my pencil and started jotting down a list of all of the trips I had been on. And I feverishly tabulated. That’s when I realized that since beginning my fellowship in June 2012, I’d been on 88 individual airplanes.
88 apple juices with no ice in 88 tiny plastic cups. 88 pretzels or peanuts, though I usually choose the latter. 88 take offs and 88 landings. 88 times the flight attendant asked to turn off all electronics because the door was closed.
Since I was suspended 10,000 feet about the air with no cell phone reception to distract me, I kept just thinking. 88 is a pretty significant number in my life. First, there’s the fact that I love music, and there are 88 keys on the standard piano keyboard. Then, as is typical, I turned to my Jewish educator roots.
One of the many tools Judaism gives us to find meaning is gematria, a sort of “Jewish numerology,” which explores the significance of numbers and uses that to find meaning in the seemingly mundane. Now, seven is an important number in Judaism and gematria. It is a number that signifies perfection, wholeness. God created the world in an order of seven days. We rest on the seventh day. The omer, or the counting of days between Passover and Shavuot, is seven weeks.
So, what about eight?
Eight is a number that symbolizes what is beyond whole; something amazing and miraculous. Hanukkah, the holiday in which we celebrate miracles, lasts eight days. There’s the tradition of performing b’rit milah when a baby reaches eight days old – to celebrate the miracle of life. Eight is a miracle-number, and I like to think that miracles serve as a device, to remind us not to take life too seriously. Miracles are something to remind us how special and holy our lives are, and sometimes to distract us. Like magic! Therefore 88, two of these “magic” numbers side by side, must be significant.
The reality is, numerology is the same as anything: if you make the time to find the Jewish connection – it’s there! And as I continue traveling, the number of planes and visits will continue to grow and change, but the trips will all be meaningful… as will the numbers surrounding the journeys.
What do you think about gematria/numerology? Are there any numbers that have particular significance to you?