The "Scape" Goat; Yom Kippur 5755

The young man stood watching the event with both anticipation and dread.

The past year had not been unusual. He had done what he could and he knew he had done well in many of his tasks; yet he also knew he had failed at others. The knowledge of his failures weighed on him. He lugged them around with him continuously as though they were piles of garbage on his shoulders; baggage that he carried with him from day to day. His friends and neighbors also felt their own weight. The feeling came not just from the heaviness of the late summer's heat; the increasing sluggishness and slowness that it brought on. In fact, the city, too, seemed to have accumulated its share of refuse. More road kill was visible at this time of year; as though the tiny animals were crushed under the weight of their own burdens. The busy activities of the long summer days seemed not to have left time for straightening up and putting away. Too much lay around and there was no collection company to come cart the stuff away. To where would they take it? To the edge of the city, outside the walls? Dump it in the ravine of the Hinnom valley? Or cart it off far into the wilderness? Anywhere they took it, it would still exist. There it would be. It wouldn't just disappear.

Now, in the cool of the morning, braced by the crisp clear air of the mountain, the priest stood in the holy temple ready to remove the emotional refuse that burdened his people. As all the people gathered watching, the Levites brought forward a bull and two young goats. There stood the priest in his special clothes almost glowing like the sky that surrounded him as he drew from a box two pieces of pottery and placed one beside each goat. One was marked: for Adonai. The other for Azazel.

The priest lay his hands on the bull and loudly proclaimed a list of errors that he and his family had made.

All knew that even a priest is a man and all have their weaknesses and flaws. As he stated his mistakes for all to know, his grandeur grew in the sight of the people, as though the weight lifted from his shoulders allowed him to stand taller among the people. The poor bull stood bound, unknowing, receiving the sounds of the priest's voice and the sweat of the priest's hands. The sound and attention, the ropes and sweat burdened and cowed him into a new submission so that when the priest slaughtered him there was little response. It was almost as though the bull was already dead from the weight of the wrongs laid upon him and the knife finally offered release. The priest then took sweet incense and poured it into a gold pan with glowing coals behind the curtain of the Holy of Holies. A dense column of smoke filled the area and rose above the space filling the entire temple courtyard with a pungent aroma as he sprinkled some of the bull's blood behind the curtain.

The priest then took the goat designated for Adonai and repeated the process, only this time he proclaimed all that had occurred among the people that year. As the gathering heard each event they shuddered a gasp of recognition and release that the deed they had so long tried to hide was now brought into the open. The priest knew the insults suffered by the people who lived near the wall and the scandals caused by their leaders. He knew the little annoyances and the major pains. At the announcement of each one the people felt a moment of embarrassment at the awareness of another's personal gaffe or loss. But then, as they recognized the basic human similarity of each one's acts, a growing sense of relief and ease pervaded the courtyard of the temple. Only the little goat got heavier. Finally, the litany complete, the priest slaughtered the goat and took also from its blood to sprinkle around the holy objects in the Temple precinct.

A sigh of relief joined the rising cloud of incense smoke as the people's worries and concerns over the past years wrongs rose with it.

Only the young man's burden grew greater.

For he had been designated to carry the second goat out to the wilderness. Each year a young man had the responsibility. The task required emotional stability and physical strength.

The priest once again laid his hands on the goat and again he repeated all the hurts and pains felt and caused by himself and his people. This time, the goat was not bound, but was held in the arms of one of the Levites as the designated young man stood nearby humbly aware of the responsibility entrusted to him.

The people had come from the wilderness with goats. The goats also originally came from the wilderness and the people's ancestors had learned to tame them and gain from them a livelihood. The people owed much to the small animal: clothing from its wool, milk and cheese and even (on special occasions) meat to eat. The animal had given them much and the people were aware of how much they had taken from the animal. Once each year, in appreciation and recognition for all the gifts, aware of all the wrongs they had done to each other and the earth upon which they lived, they released one of the small animals that gave them their livelihood back to the world from which it came.

The young man had the task of ensuring the success of the venture.

By the time the priest had finished with his second recitation of all the wrongs of the preceding year, the heat of the day had begun. The young man, barefoot and hungry received the goat and started on his way to the north east of the city that rested on the mountain. Wilderness lay all over the east, but the southern area was significantly drier, especially at the end of summer. He had at other times borne his own goats, small yearlings such as this, that had strayed from the flock. At those times the small body around his shoulders would rest exhausted from the adventure of being lost then now found. Now, this animal almost struggled in agitation from the events of the morning and added an additional strain to the heated rocks that made little path along the young man's way.

The people had no guarantee that, once returned to the wild a domesticated animal would find a flock with which to live. The best they could do was take this goat that, by chance, represented all the sorrows of the wrongs they had done and give it the best chance they could. The young man walked toward one of the canyons that cut into the mountain's east slope. Some of these held hidden springs that served as year-round watering spots for the animals that called the wilderness home.

Though he had started out in the heat of the day, the fact that he walked down the eastern slope of the mountain made his task a bit easier as he soon walked in shadow. The season had begun to change and large gray clouds that promised rain and a new beginning for the life of the area started to collect behind his back. He descended into an opening that would become a canyon. The longest days had passed the shadows would soon turn to darkness. The squirming goat on his back, his hunger, and the cutting of the rocks on the soles of his feet kept the pains he had experienced and caused during the past year fresh in his mind. At one point a scorpion scampered nearby and drew his attention away from the task of his hike, he lost his balance and nearly fell.

As dusk approached he heard the sounds of the other animals who shared this canyon.

The jackals howled in the distance, but he could also here nearby the movement of other animals, perhaps a large cat. The moon's face had begun to fill out as though ready to reveal more to the young man than it had when the year had begun only ten days before. He searched for a cave in which to rest safely for the night before releasing his charge the following morning. Exhausted by the hike, the hunger, and the strangeness of the day, the two of them fell asleep almost immediately. It was still early in the evening and a spider quickly sealed off the opening with her web. The new strange odors in the area brought a lion to explore in addition to other residents of the canyon, but the web kept them out and the young man lay unaware through the night.

While the clouds of the previous night brought no rain, their blanket did ease the chill of the night. When he awoke, the young man was startled to see a new door to his cave. The morning dewdrops glistened as the sun shown through the web while the spider broke its fast on a large fly that had tried to get into the comfort of the cave. As he squeezed himself and the goat out of the cave underneath the web he got stuck in a few strands and wondered: Only the maker of this web does not stick to it. How different we are. The webs we weave most often trap only ourselves.

The goat, by now accustomed to the young man’s presence in the even more-strange environment, hovered near him as he let it go. The young man was hungry and filthy from the previous day's sweat and the sleep in the cave, yet, as the goat explored its new surroundings he felt cleansed. An ease of heart and a lightness of mind did not derive only from the lack of food. His fast had formally ended the previous evening, but he had no food with him and would not eat till he returned home.

The young man started his climb with the sun, once again, at his back. But unlike the day before, this time, the mountain did not shade him. Nonetheless, the release of the goat had lifted the weight from him and his ascent seemed almost a float on the updrafts that rose from desert far below.

The cycle of a new day had begun, as had that of the new year.

The people had recycled the gift of their bounty and at the same time found a way to send their accumulated burdens of guilt off to a fill in the wilderness.

All was ready to begin anew.

©Mark Hurvitz