Yom Kippur, 5771, Joel Gerwein

Yom Kippur

September 18, 2010 / 10 Tishrei, 5771

Joel Gerwein

Here we are again, facing the challenge of returning every year to work on the same failings, individually and as a community. It seems like every Yom Kippur I am apologizing for the same sins, promising myself I will be less angry and more kind. It’s hard to keep hoping and working for change. How are we to meet that challenge?

Whenever I face a profound life problem like this one, I turn to the greatest source of wisdom we have in this world, by which I mean, of course, the goat.   Adaptable, playful, assertive, nurturing, furry- the goat has it all.

This must be why Yom Kippur features goats so prominently. Today, in the Torah reading and again in the Seder Haavodah, the Service of the High Priest, we read about the mysterious ritual of the scapegoat and the goat for Hashem. My mother, may her memory be for a blessing, used to leyn this Torah reading every year. I was always captivated by the haunting quality of the Yom Kippur trope and the mystery of the scapegoat, sent into the wilderness with all our sins on its head.

We read that, on Yom Kippur, two goats were brought before the High Priest. The High Priest cast lots to designate one goat for God and one goat for Azazel. The mishnah tells us that the goats had to be identical in appearance, stature, and price, and should be purchased at the same time, so that the designation would be left entirely to God- the High Priest would have no role in the selection, not even unconsciously. The meaning of Azazel is unknown. Many commentators, like Ibn Ezra and Rashi, identify Azazel as a steep and rocky place. If you make an Israeli angry nowadays, they may tell you “Lech Lazazel!”or “Go to hell!” Other commentators, such as Nachmanides, say that Azazel is a demon, or even Satan himself. This is a disturbing thought. Why would we offer a sacrifice to a demon on this day of all days? On reflection, however, it is clear that the scapegoat ritual is not demon worship. In the Jewish tradition, Satan is the prosecutor in the Divine Court. Effectively, we are confessing all our sins and sending them to the court prosecutor. In this sense, we are throwing ourselves on the mercy of the court, asking for another chance.

Other commentators suggest that Azazel is the role played by the goat itself: Az or Ez meaning goat, and Azal meaning went away- the goat who goes away, escapes, or scapegoat. The goat for Hashem is brought as a sin offering to purify the tabernacle. The High Priest then confesses all the sins of the people over the goat for Azazel. Our sins are thus transferred onto the head of the scapegoat, who is sent off into the wilderness by a designated person.

The goat’s escort had to immerse himself and wash his clothes before returning to the camp, like the person who burned the red heifer to bring about purification of the people through that other mysterious ritual. This requirement for cleansing suggests that the journey with the goat to “Eretz Gzerah” “A land that is cut off” was so powerful and transformative that those who took part in it couldn’t just return to everyday life without some ritual to help with the transition. In fact, the commentator Chizkuni tells us that whoever led the scapegoat into the wilderness was expected to die within the year. For that reason, the person designated for this job, the “Ish Iti” was a person whose time had come, “Iti” from the root “et” or time, someone who was already expected to die soon. I doubt there were many volunteers.

Many people think that the scapegoat was sent off into the wilderness to die, perhaps of hunger and thirst or at the claws of some wild beast. In fact, by the time of the Second Temple, the mishnah tells us that the scapegoat was actually pushed off a cliff, leaving nothing to chance. But the Torah makes no such suggestion. In fact, the scapegoat is identified twice as the living goat- Hasair hachai- to distinguish him from the goat for Hashem, as if this is part of his role- to live.

Furthermore, Midbar, or wilderness, is not a place of death in the Torah. Technically midbar seemed to mean grazing land, from the root dvir meaning a gathering place for livestock. The wilderness was a place that could not be farmed and was without settlements, because it was too steep, rocky or dry. But there is no reason to think that a resourceful goat couldn’t make a good home there.

The wilderness in the Torah is also the place to encounter God, where Moses saw the burning bush, where Elijah heard the still, small voice, where we all received the Torah at Sinai. In fact, Ibn Ezra says that some believe Azazel is a mountain close to Mount Sinai. But why would we be sending our sins on the head of a goat to encounter God in the wilderness?   Was Yom Kippur some kind of goatish proto-Outward Bound program?

I think that, on some level, the wilderness offers an opportunity for healing and forgiveness. Every year when I was growing up my parents would take my brothers and me backpacking in beautiful wilderness areas. These trips are an important reason that I went into environmental protection for a career. My family has its share of dysfunction- my parents struggled for years over the same issue of balancing work and family and my brothers and I fought like most siblings over the precious commodities of love, achievement and comic books. Our backpacking trips weren’t perfect- we fought then, too. But there was something about the mountain, canyons and forest that, in the words of Marge Piercy, quieted “the snarling of the lesser appetites and the whining of the ego.” Maybe it helped us put our fears and the slights we felt into perspective. We were all a little easier to live with and a little more accepting of each other.

A Hasidic rabbi, Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Psischke, used to carry two pieces of paper with himat all times. On one piece of paper he wrote “For my sake, the world was created,” an important message to look at when he felt depressed and powerless. On the other paper he wrote “I am dust and ashes,” a good reminder when he was feeling too prideful. I tried adopting this practice for a while, but I kept forgetting which pocket held which piece of paper, so it just made me manic depressive. Anyway, perhaps the scapegoat carries our sins and our insecurities to the wilderness so they can get a little of this perspective. I may feel that my problems are insurmountable and that my failings are like mountains, like the damage I have done is unforgiveable. But I should get over myself- I am dust and ashes, an infinitesimally small part of creation. For me this realization is not only humbling, it is also glorious. I may be only dust and ashes, but it’s dust and ashes that make up this awe-inspiring creation. It helps to know that, even if I seem to make the same mistakes every year, I am part of something larger than myself, something beautiful and alive, something that will continue when I am gone. And by helping me to forgive myself, this knowledge makes me more capable of doing teshuva and of helping the world do teshuva.

Sometimes we may have to bear the weight of our own sins and those of our society on our heads on a lonely journey in the wilderness, but we should remember that we can still encounter God if we open ourselves to the divine in creation. Even if we may think we are headed for Azazel, we should remember that our journey may actually bringus close to Sinai. I want to conclude by reading part of Marge Piercy’s Interpretive Nishmat Kol Chai poem from which I quoted earlier:

Every day we find a new sky and a new earth
with which we are trusted like a perfect toy.
We are given the salty river of our blood
winding through us, to remember the sea and our
kindred under the waves, the hot pulsing that knocks
in our throats to consider our cousins in the grass
and the trees, all bright scattered rivulets of life …

We are given the body, that momentary kibbutz of elements
that have belonged to frog and polar bear, corn and oak tree, volcano and glacier.
We are lent for a time these minerals in water and a morning every day,
a morning to wake up, rejoice, and praise life ….

We stand in the midst of the burning world;
primed to burn with compassionate love and justice,
to turn inward and find holy fire at the core,
to turn outward and see the world that is all
of one flesh with us, see under the trash, through
the smog, the furry bee in the apple blossom,
the trout leaping, the candles our ancestors lit for us.

Fill us as the tide rustles into the reeds in the marsh.
Fill us as the rushing water overflows the pitcher.
Fill us as light fills a room with its dancing.
Let the little quarrels of the bones and the snarling
Of the lesser appetites and the whining of the ego cease.
Let silence still us so you may show us your shining
And we can out of that stillness rise and praise.

G’mar Chatima Tova. May we all be sealed in the Book of Life.