Finding the Circle
A modern day Honi
The president of the congregation had missed last weekend's services due to a previous engagement and had also overslept for attending the services of the holiday of Shavuot during the prior week. But he wasn't going to miss out on Shabbat services this weekend -not even though it had been raining profusely. This Friday afternoon he showered, shaved, got dressed up in his dark suit and walked the half-mile's distance in the soaking rain to the synagogue.
Reaching for the handle to open its front door, he was somewhat surprised to find it locked. "Oh well...", he thought, "...guess I'm a bit early!". And then he remembered: I don't have the key... it's been two weeks... it's late spring... it won't be getting dark this Friday afternoon until close to 8:00 PM!! He realized that a two hour wait was in store for him... and the rain started to increase.He decided not to go back home... he might lay down for a nap and miss services again!
Looking for some kind of cover to stand under, was not going to be easy. It was all open areas near the shul and only the trees were there to stand under. But which would be the most effective in terms of cover? The concrete veranda was almost all soaked with rain -except for two small dry spots that he noticed under the frail tree with the strange leaves. "Might as well try it.", he sighed. And so he stood on one of the dry spots cast by the frail tree's shielding, albeit pointy leaves. Time passed slowly during the lonely moments of waiting.
The rain was now accompanied by thunder and an occasional flash of lighting was seen in the western sky. Was it a dangerous undertaking to be under a tree during a thunderstorm? But the president's resolve was not shaken. He was near his synagogue and God would hopefully have mercy on a stalwart congregant.
The rain was now becoming more extreme and the dry spots disappeared into the soaked concrete under his feet. The president's jacket was getting wet. A new dry "oasis" would have to be located near the shul. He didn't want to leave. Someone would surely come soon and open the door. But it was not to be.
Nothing but more rain. He inspected the front yard and the tall trees that populated parts of it. Nothing near by. A slow, summery walk down the concrete incline, put there for the handicapped had placed him under denser leaves -but the raindrops were sneaking through this canopy also. Near the end of the concrete walk there was an interesting large-branched tree. And one branch in particular, was rather parallel to the ground, providing a narrow but certain protection in the form of a natural umbrella. He would try it. It was a rather tight spot but if the president leaned against the tree's trunk -and placed one leg up on an adjacent tree... well, that seemed to have worked out just fine. The large branch and the tree's dense leaves kept him dry... for a while. But the precarious positioning of the leg on the adjacent tree had to be changed every few minutes or so, in order to prevent cramping. Still, it was worth being dry for the extra strain.
And then a strange thing happened. A pedestrian, wearing a blue mac with an over-sized hat, was fast-walking down the rain-shined road, heading his way. Now it should be mentioned that the tree upon which the president had relied on for protection, had been right next to the public thoroughfare. A main road in town, with sidewalks on either side of the street. At least at this section of the town. So now, the impending passing of the blue-clad pedestrian was steadily approaching. The president became apprehensive.
"Would I be noticed?", the president pondered... "And will it be someone I know? And how will I explain my strange situation?". His imagination was practicing all eventualities of the possible scenarios. But while the president was anticipating this "anxious crossing of paths", the pedestrian passed by with nary a glance either left or right. Maybe he saw a man behind the tree and maybe he didn't -or perhaps he chose not to see. Either way, the chance of an exchange became a moot point to ponder.
The president wasn't sure if this was a good thing or a dumb thing. Either way, he didn't recognize the passer-by except for the gawky manner in which his gait plodded ahead: each step squarely in front of the other foot, causing a kind of a Chaplin-esque wobble to the rest of the passer-by's body. Oh... and he also wore thick glasses that were profusely covered with rain drops. Perhaps they obstructed the clarity of his vision (if in fact he had any) -after all, this passer-by must have needed glasses for a reason!
The president readjusted his awkward perch to avoid the peripheral drops which were now finding new routes around the protecting branch above him... and soaking his pants which would most likely not be noticed since they were black. He strained an acknowledging smile with the understanding that the wet situation would only get wetter... and fatalistically accepted it.
More rain-walkers were coming from across the street. They had arrived on his side of the street and were approaching rather quickly. Obviously the types who didn't like to get too wet from the rain. Hmmmm.... he thought..."sane people". And then they both looked up and SAW HIM! An exchange of surprised glances and smiles reassured the walkers of a safe and comfortable passage past this "stranger" -and the president regained his composure and resumed his post patiently. He was satisfied with the short ambiguous encounter.
Some time had passed while no one was passing by, and his mind wandered to the experiences he had a while ago on one Shabbat afternoon. The rabbi had gathered "the faithful" after the minha afternoon prayers and these few "interested parties" (the president among them) went to study the Talmud. It was TAANIS, and they had left off from the passage about "Honi, the circle-maker". Upon resumption of this reading, the president had learned that Honi petitioned God for rain. Honi did this by drawing a circle and entering it. Honi told God he would not leave this circle until God caused it to rain. Honi was nothing if not persistent. Yet, Honi was a great scholar and God responded. Rain, it did!
"Would it work in reverse?", the president pondered under the now saturated tree-branch from which the drops of rain had found a new path to travel upon its cylindrical underbelly so that they were peppering the president's clothes from head to toe. The president looked down on the ground and in a flash of Gestalt imagery, saw the root-stone-sand combination of marks that could describe a circle. If only he would take the trouble to connect them.
At first he thought: it would be foolish... after all, he had this tree-shelter... he didn't want to leave... but he was soaked through anyway... and there was no one around... so why not? He took a loose twig and traced out the circle in the ground. Oh, oh,...was this writing? Did the building of the mishkan involve making traces in the earth? Had he just violated a major rule of Shabbat? Either way, he had already done it, so he might as well go through with it. He abandoned his now wet "oasis" and stepped inside the circle with the thought of "Let's see what happens now?!?".
For a noticeable moment the rain became more even -one might even say "softer" -but it did not stop. Yet, something else was happening. As long as the president stayed inside the circle, the very center of the circle -he did not feel any raindrops falling on him!?! And so he decided to stay still... absolutely still.
No one was passing by. Perhaps he'd hear it if one of his fellow congregants had approached or better still, the rabbi's brother, the caretaker of the synagogue would arrive and open the door for minha. None of that happened... but he noted that time, somehow seemed to have stopped -or at least "ceased to exist". The president was alone in the rain under a tree, with the rain pouring down all around him, but not on him. It was a subjective miracle. Maybe not as big as when Moses parted the sea... but a miracle none the less. And then he lapsed into some kind of transcendence -oblivious to the immediate surroundings.
Some time later, he noticed a large "white blip" out of the corner of his eye. Was it a "flash of revelation" from the Almighty? Some mystical vision? Or...and as he turned his head, he saw a stout man in a wet white shirt walk up to the synagogue's front door, open it, and walk inside. "Now... how did that happen?" Was it open all the time for the past two hours? Did the president not exert enough pressure on the lock's handle when he first tried to get in?
With the distraction over, the president reflected on where he was -IN THE MIDDLE OF A CIRCLE -standing under a tree in what appeared to be.... RAIN. Could he leave this mystical perch? Could he just abruptly breach the borders of his ethereal protection? Shouldn't there be some form of ritual? Some acknowledgement of respect and thanks for this "hospitality"?
Suddenly he remembered something he read a while ago about the experiences of an adventurer, Gurdjieff, who had witnessed a boy, a Yezidi boy, seemingly "trapped" inside a circle drawn on the ground. Because of his religious beliefs, the boy could not cross from the circle's inner boundary. So Gurdjieff erased part of the drawn circle on the ground and the Yezidi boy ran out of the circle... and away from everyone.
The president began to step on the traced circle's periphery. Slowly the divided dust had been reverted back to its nondescript anonymity. The circle existed no more -and with the boundary gone, the president nonchalantly walked over to the front door of the shul, pressed on the lock of the door handle and entered.
So, it was true. The door had somehow been opened while he was in his "reverie"... Somehow, someone had arrived a while ago and "opened shop" without noticing him outside. After all, he was off the "beaten path" and in the murky raining conditions, one could easily miss a president standing under a tree in the middle of a circle!
He walked through the front door's second opening, kissed the mezzuzah and headed for the main sanctuary. Upon opening the door, he was surprised to see a few other congregants -all of whom must have arrived during his "two hour wait", or at least in the past 15 minutes, when it was customary for most of the shul's faithful to "ingress".
Yes, his jacket was wet but there was one more congregant's hand to shake with a "Good Shabbat" salutation to... the rabbi. Glancing at the president's sopping clothes, the rabbi greeted him with a wise expression saying, "The harder the trip to the synagogue, the greater the mitzvah!".
The president smiled and pondered the pronouncement with mixed emotions. He was glad that his efforts were acknowledged (though that wasn't the purity of his sentiment) -because at the same time, the president knew that he was "given this trip" as a test of sorts and as a form of atonement for not being in shul these past weeks. God wanted to see if he still wanted to belong -and so tasked him with an opportunity to demonstrate "conscious effort and voluntary suffering". This was the special "dues" that the president had to pay. Interestingly enough, he paid it gladly -knowing fully well that "payment was a permanent principle"... as the afternoon prayers started on time.