On a family trip to England many years ago, we visited the famous hedge maze at Hampton Court Palace. At one point I became separated from my father and brother; unable to discern a way out, I grew increasingly panicked until another traveler showed me the secret of successful hedge maze wandering: place my right hand on one wall of the maze, then continue walking while keeping my hand on the wall so I wouldn’t get turned around. To my great relief, I eventually arrived at the exit.
Not all garden mazes are as topologically simple as Hampton Court, capable of being exited in such a clear, if circuitous, way. And how much more complex are the metaphorical mazes of our lives, those baffling and disorienting labyrinths that frighten us into thinking we will forever suffer in their interlocking passages.
In the decades since that family trip, I’ve walked many mazes that have felt overwhelming; labyrinths of depression and anxiety, in which I prayed for an exit strategy as simple as placing my hand on the wall—or for any exit strategy at all.
In her poem “Walking the Labyrinth,” BJ member Rabbi Pamela Wax describes this experience of wandering the internal mazes of our hearts and minds:
I am a connoisseur of labyrinths….
…I may be in a candle-lit rectory in the Bronx.
Following a unicursal path branded
In black paint on a waxed parquet floor,
Or inhaling an autumn Berkshire landscape
While weaving in lanes drawn
By shrubs, strings or stones.
I could be prancing barefoot on grass
Or solemnly marching to the cadence
Of a dirge-like owl demanding answers
To unknowable pain…
Wax’s poem is an expression of her grief after losing her brother to suicide, a unique anguish understood only by those who have borne such loss. Though I do not share this experience, her words spoke to me, whispering about the capriciousness of pain and its ability to form a seemingly inescapable labyrinth around our souls—almost anywhere and at any moment.
Over the years, I’ve been taught many strategies for navigating these mazes, but the most important thing I have learned is that I cannot reach the exit on my own. That I always need someone—a guide, like the kind woman at Hampton Court, or just a soft and loving presence breathing beside me as I bumble toward eventual freedom.
This week, our community study of Pirkei Avot explored the question of which values we should aspire to express in our interactions with one another; which values should form the foundation of the community covenant we are creating together. In the virtual community journal, our members have offered suggestions such as kindness, respect, care for the earth, love, gratitude, learning, spirituality, and inclusivity. No surprises there.
But I want to add one more to this list—one that is less obvious, and perhaps harder to live out—and that is the value of vulnerability. Embracing this value means acknowledging that we cannot, and do not have to, walk life’s labyrinths alone. Embodying this value means allowing ourselves to ask for and receive the support we need when we are trapped in a maze.
As we journey toward Shavuot, and toward articulating our covenantal commitments to one another, may we create a community where each one of us can bring our own vulnerability, and where we each know that even if we are lost, we are never alone.
National Mental Health Awareness Month
May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. If you, or someone you know, is struggling with mental illness, you don’t have to face things alone. Please reach out if you would like to speak confidentially with a rabbi or with Jane Blumenstein, BJ’s social worker. Please click here for more information about M’kom Shalom, a support group for people who have lost a loved one to suicide, hosted by BJ.