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Goat's Journey Helps Us to See Ourselves

In the Torah reading on Yom Kippur morning we read from Leviticus 16. Part of that reading recounts the ritual of sending our sins away to the desert on the back of a goat. It's a powerful and puzzling text:

16:5 And he [Aaron] shall take of the congregation of the children of Israel two kids of the goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offerings.

16:7-10 And he shall take the two goats, and present them before the Eternal at the entrance of the appointed tent. And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Eternal, and one lot for Azazel. And Aaron shall offer the goat upon which the lot for the Eternal fell, and bring it for a sin offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell to Azazel, shall stand alive before the Eternal, to extinguish guilt with it, and to send it forth unto Azazel into the desert.

16:20-22 And when he finished extinguishing the guilt for the holy place, and the appointed tent, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat. And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the evil of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions and sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send it forth into the desert. And the goat shall bear upon it all their evil unto a desolate land; and he shall send forth the goat into the desert.

It seems odd that the goat which bore our sins would remain alive. Later interpretations, however, claimed that the goat for Azalzel was sent away to die, and there are elaborate descriptions of the goat being pushed off a high craggy desert peak to its death. This interpretation has our sins being toted far away to die in impressive fashion.

I have found it helpful to create my own image of what might have happened to that goat in the desert and what it does symbolically for us. These imaginings are inspired by my own trips to the desert, especially the ten weeks I spent backpacking in Arizona and Utah in 1979, and the three months I lived at Kibbutz Grofit in the Arava in 1983. I've also taken several trips to the Sinai desert.

I imagine that the goat that is offered up to God represents the sins we have already worked through, and the goat sent to the desert are those deficiencies which continue to reverberate through us, repeating themselves in predictable yet destructive patterns. The desert is a good place to get clarity and vision to release us from the debilitating patterns.

In the desert you can see the sky and the ground all at once. The light and shadow expose the structure of the landscape, each red, yellow, or gray rock taking its place. I live in Philadelphia now and in the summer the large leaves on the trees shade the sun and hide the lay of the landscape. The temperate regions provide ample cover for their dwellers to avoid facing themselves. When I'm in the desert, I step out to the edge of a cliff, standing on strong thighs built from walking there, and begin to see myself in the same clear way that I can see the formation of the canyon in front of me.

So when Aaron confesses for the Community of Israel and leans his hands on the goat (the word for lean, "samakh" also means "trust"), he's beginning a process that might lead to our "coming out" into the light of our true selves. By trusting that goat, Aaron is also sending us with the goat into the desert. He does this so that we can have the light of the desert shine on our souls while the goat caries our stuckness for us. By traversing the desert without the burden of our sins, we can begin to get an image of ourselves that can survive without our destructive behaviors. For in the corners of our civilized places, we have hidden successfully with our poorer selves and become dependant upon living with them. In the desert we are free from them.

Neither Yom Kippur of today nor an elaborate ancient ritual will magically purify us. But we can take time, whether in an actual desert, or the space of prayer, or simple reflection, to find the open and sunlit places that allow us to see that part of us which was created in the image of God, and which can bring great gifts into this world.
Type: Dvar Torah