Sometime last week I was strolling in a park with my young son and his friend. There was an open courtyard paved in brick with lighter and darker paving stones. I began to follow a pattern in the pavers and shortly realized that I was walking the course of a public prayer labyrinth. I’ve been stressed lately and was grateful for the opportunity to employ this ancient meditative tool. The pattern itself was calming, a narrow winding path that has a way of clearing the mind. My steps were slow and careful; I recognized the pace, it was the same even gait I use in preparation for my Amidah.
The core of Jewish liturgical prayer is known by two names. The term Shmoneh Esreh means 18, recognizing the 18 benedictions which originally formed this prayer and the name Amidah means standing; it describes the posture taken during our meditation. Beginning a journey with the right foot we enter the Shmoneh Esreh with three steps towards the East. Upon arriving at our destination we stand with feet together in prayer.
As I walked the path in the park I thought about how the prayer labyrinth and Amidah complemented each other. Prayer is both journey and destination. I had once heard that labyrinths were used by devout Christians as a kind of meditative pilgrimage. Those unable to travel the physical distance would imagine this walk as a journey to Jerusalem. Our Amidah is an arrival. The few steps we take before this prayer are also a path to The Land.
Preparing for prayer we take three steps backwards, in doing so we acknowledge our exile and distance from G-dliness and set our minds to return to Israel, the place of connection and the throne of Mashiach. With one…two…three deliberate steps we arrive with feet planted firmly together in The Land, the place of connection and holiness. The ultimate goal of Judaism is the elevating of the mundane…the infusion of holiness into even the lowest parts of creation. Two primary examples of this are Haaretz (The Land of Israel) and Mashiach. In these we find the place of meeting. The very soil of Israel is called holy because it has been given a spiritual purpose; its here that heaven and earth connect. Similarly, through his embodiment of Torah, his keeping of the mitzvot, Yeshua transformed even his body into a vehicle for G-dliness. Mashiach is the image of unity between creature and Creator. It is for this reason our Amidah is both a return to The Land and a witness to an awaited messianic advent. Jerusalem is never more than three steps away.