Goats off a cliff

Goats are all the rage. Check out the many goat’s milk products on the shelves at Whole foods. Have you tried baby goat yoga? 

In Torah this week, goats also figure prominently. A Yom Kippur ritual is described, where one goat is slaughtered and one goat is tossed into a valley. Either way, the hapless goat is being sacrificed to relieve the entire community of their sins.

Happily for the goats, our tradition has developed a less violent way to atone. The methodology, described by Maimonides, includes recognition of the sin, regret, recompense, and recommitment to avoid such behavior in the future.  And we are obligated to both ask for and offer forgiveness.

Generally, the only people thinking about Yom Kippur in April are rabbis. But the lessons for us to learn is that atonement should be a daily practice. Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi, z”l, urged each of us to take time before sleep to review our day, recall our errors, and notice those offenses that have harmed us. The goal is to maintain a practice of forgiveness.  Zalman urged that we should both seek forgiveness from those we have harmed and we should be open to offer forgiveness to those who have harmed us. The atonement process is multi-directional.

I have had trouble forgiving some offenses I have experienced in my life. Forgiveness is particularly challenging when the offense comes from someone who has been in a position of power or has been privy to intimate aspects of my life. Yet, I have learned that forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves, as we are unburdened from the anxiety and tension associated with victimhood and regretfulness.

Cue up the story of the Buddhist monk who carries an elderly woman across a river but receives no thanks. He continues to be angry for hours until his companion asks, why are you still carrying that woman on your back?

I don’t think we are required to excuse all bad behavior. But our lives can be improved if we learn how to unburden ourselves of the anger and fear that results from our being harmed by others. The brilliance of the daily multi-directional forgiveness practice is that to the extent we are honest about our own fallibilities we are better able to forgive the failings of others. In the process of forgiving, we can regularly experience the benefits of emancipating ourselves from the cycle of wounding and woundedness. A forgiveness practice is an opportunity for us to find resilience even when we have been hurt.

Besides, opening our hearts and releasing our pain seems a much better atonement technique than tossing goats off of a cliff.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame