The Goat Always Comes Back: On Facing Fear

September 6, 2011
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Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg

In the ancient Jerusalem Temple, every year on Yom Kippur, the High Priest would do a sort of a lottery to determine the fates of two goats. One became marked for “the LORD” and was slaughtered as a sacrifice, and the other was designated “for Azazel” and driven out into the wilderness.  Today we read the story in which God tells Abraham to bind and slaughter his son Isaac as a sacrifice, and yesterday we read about how Abraham drove his elder son, Ishmael, into the wilderness.  One goat is sacrificed, one goat is driven away.  One son is to be sacrificed, one son is driven away.

The goat sacrifice was wasn’t just to give the ancients an excuse to barbeque for God.   Rather, this offering served as a way to expiate, or cleanse, the Tent of Meeting (and later the Temple), the Holy of Holies and the altar itself of tumah, or ritual impurity.  The sacrifice purifies. The goat for Azazel, on the other hand, doesn’t get killed. Aaron lays his hands on its head and confesses all the sins and transgressions of the people Israel, thereby ritually transferring them from the community to the animal.  Then somebody sends it into the great, wild, wilderness, taking everybody’s sins with him and out of our sight.  The Azazel goat is meant to carry the badness away, to where we don’t have to see it.

The Akeidah-the binding of Isaac-happened on Mount Moriah. That is, according to Jewish tradition, the exact same spot on which the Temple was eventually built, where the Holy of Holies would eventually stand. So the profound exchange between Abraham and God served in a similar way to prepare/clean/enact the holiness of space as the Yom Kippur expiation sacrifice. Ishmael, like the goat of Azazel, on the other hand, is sent out to “the wilderness”—both the Yom Kippur story and the Ishmael story make ample use of the language of wilderness: hamidbara, bimidbar, bamidbar. An unspecified, unnamed location.

The fates of these two goats and these two sons reflects powerfully the two basic human reactions to dirt: clean it, or throw it away.   We can try to send our problems away, or we can clean or purgate the situation at its root.

Every year, sometime between the beginning of the month of Elul and Rosh Hashonah (and every year this happens a little later than I’d like), I make a list of people that I need to call—to ask their forgiveness, to try to reconcile if there’s been a mutual estrangement, that sort of thing.  And for years, every year my aunt was on the list.  Our relationship had been difficult and painful since my mother died many years ago—there were a lot of old hurts about what was said or not said, done or not done, expectations for each other that never got met.  In the years since we had both tried, but weren’t so successful at navigating a relationship that’s really satisfying.  And every year I’d feel like I hadn’t done enough, hadn’t called enough, hadn’t been back to visit often enough or for a long enough time.  Fundamentally, I just wanted our problems to go away.  I wanted, like Abraham and Sarah, to send them off when they got sticky, I wanted to shuttle them into the wilderness and not have to deal with them ever again.  So I would call, we would have a quick-fix conversation, and the day after Yom Kippur, our relationship would go back to how it’s always been—so of course, the following year, she would appear on my list again.  It was like this for years.

That’s the thing with sending the goat away into the wilderness: It always comes back.  We’re still looking for the quick fixes that will just make the problem go away, but there is ultimately, as Gertrude Stein famously said, no “there” there.  What was once hamidbar can easily become your back yard.  What is no-where is also everywhere, and the unresolved problems will come to assert themselves and reassert themselves, time and time again.

The connection between the expiation sacrifice and the Akeidah story, on the other hand, teaches us that we have to be willing to let go, to really let go.  The Yom Kippur sacrifice seems to say that atonement requires death, requires, literally, sacrifice.  The Akeidah story, on the other hand, tweaks things a bit: expiation comes not actually from death itself, but rather the willingness to enter death.

I have a friend who grew up in a household with an abusive father and, as an adult, she spent years on the wilderness approach, did whatever she could to simply avoid conflict or unpleasantness—though she didn’t enjoy it, she felt that she could deal with her father generally, but it was when he was angry that he became really explosive and mean.  One day, she heard God’s voice telling her that, for her own emotional and spiritual health she had to be willing to give up this relationship—to sacrifice it, to cut it right at the heart of where it was broken.  With the help of a therapist mediator, she arranged to meet her father and confront him about everything.  She was fully aware that he probably wouldn’t be able to take it and that this could very well be the end of their relationship.  She went in prepared to lose her parent for the sake of truth and integrity, and like Abraham who learned at the last minute that he could save his son, she discovered that through the willingness to give this relationship up, she found life instead.   The confrontation didn’t go perfectly, but it went, and over a few years of tentative phone calls and mutual effort, they’re doing better than they have in years.  It’s still fraught and complex for her—it’s not like everything became fixed overnight—but her willingness to lose everything gave her the courage to address her problems bravely, at the root.  And though difficult and painful, the confrontation—however it may have ultimately resolved, with a “happy ending” or not—proved to be transformational.

Afterwards, she found that in a more global sense she was no longer afraid, no longer defensive and reactive the way that she once was.  It turns out, not surprisingly, that the avoidance that had characterized her relationship with her father had colored every relationship she had in her life, and facing the big issue from which she had been hiding had a similarly profound ripple effect.  Suddenly, simply put, so many things became easier, and her capacity for joy increased correspondingly.  She climbed Mount Moriah willing to take a dagger to the brokenness and the hiding and the pretending and the lies, to the walls she had erected to keep the angry goat within at bay.  The goat returned and returned, and he would not give her peace until she turned her avoidance into sacrifice, into an offering to God.

The medieval sage Maimonedes says that true tshuvah (repentence) happens when you find yourself in the same situation in which you had sinned, and taking a different path.  How, you might ask, can one ever find themselves in the exact same situation in which they did something wrong?  Simple.  If you just keep sending your goats back into the wilderness again and again and again, you can be sure, those same situations and old dramas will keep finding you—perhaps in slightly different form, but fundamentally the same.  And until you face the goat itself, face the thing that continues to return, it will be impossible to conceive of a different path, to think of anything that you might do differently.  That goat is blocking your way out—your way out of a self-created prison, your way to tshuvah, to wholeness, to healing, to joy, to God, and to yourself.   Every time you kick out the goat, he comes back angrier, dragging the wilderness along as he returns.

The only path to tshuvah, to true tshuvah, requires incredible bravery.  It requires climbing a great mountain—the mountain of our deepest fears, the mountain of everything we hold most sacred.  It requires climbing, fearlessly, and preparing to sacrifice the thing we are most terrified to lose, the thing we think we can’t live without.   Pick one thing this week—one thing.  The problem that is like a throbbing ache in your heart, or like a quiet mewling sound from somewhere down deep, the goat that keeps rushing into your life from the wilderness.  Take it up Mount Moriah, offer it up to God and try to think about how you can strike it at the root, cut at its jugular, tear it out at the core.  And remember what Abraham—and my friend— learned: Our God is a God of surprise.  You do not know how this story is going to turn out.  Your job is not to control the outcome, to dictate its terms.  It will never turn out how you think it will—or, perhaps, how you fear most that it will.  Trust yourself.  Trust God.  And let your process of tshuvah, of return, of reunion with the Source of all that is, be filled with the sweet expiatory smoke of your offering, on the fire.

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