Two goats, identical in height, features, complexion, and even cost were placed in the Temple’s courtyard on the morning of Yom Kippur. Lots, drawn by the High Priest, would designate one goat to G-d and the other goat to the mysterious Azazel. The first goat – the one chosen for G-d, would be slaughtered like all other offerings, only that this offering would have the unique distinction of having its blood sprinkled in the Holy of Holies. The second goat would be walked for miles, deep, deep into the wilderness. The first goat was offered on the grand altar in full view of the masses gathered in the Temple for Yom Kippur. The second goat was escorted by one man alone, without any audience at all, then thrown off a cliff, and left to die a gruesome death.
Two goats, identical in height, features, complexion, and even cost – two very different outcomes all decided by a lottery. Luck, fortune, chance would dictate the fate of these two goats.
The classic understanding of this strange Yom Kippur ceremony is that the identical goats represent the two paths that stand before each and every one of us. We are constantly faced with a choice – service to G-d or abdication of responsibility. The judgment of Yom Kippur is the ultimate reminder that we have free-will, that we choose, and the consequences of our choices are ours. In the words of the poet, Anthony Liccione, “There really are only two roads we will travel, one going to heaven, the other to hell.”
But there is something lacking with this explanation. If the symbolism of these identical goats is to remind us of the two paths we can take, of the possibilities that stand before each of us for us to choose, why then is the fate of these two goats left to a lottery? If this central service of Yom Kippur is to highlight free-will, why does it revolve around pure and random chance? The goats do not select which path they will take! The High Priest does not even consciously decide which will go to G-d and which will go to Azazel! It’s left to chance, to a lottery; the very antithesis of choice.
It would seem, that the two identical goats do not represent choice; they represent the exact opposite; the randomness of life. The two identical goats, with two radically different fates, represent how two identical people, for reasons entirely out of their control, can lead drastically different lives. Some of you may have read the book, The Other Wes Moore. It’s a story, a local story of two boys who grew up a few blocks away from one another, here in Baltimore City. Both had difficult childhoods, both grew up without fathers, both hung out with gangs, and both had run-ins with the police. Two goats, identical in every which way.
However, one Wes Moore grew up to be a Rhodes Scholar, a decorated veteran, a White House Fellow, and a business leader. The other Wes Moore ended up a convicted murderer serving a life sentence. One goat is chosen to be brought as an offering and the other goat thrown down the cliff. In the words of Wes Moore, the Rhodes Scholar, Wes Moore: “The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his.”
Circumstances, many of them completely out of each boy’s hands, shaped their lives. Just like circumstances, mostly out of our hands, shape ours. In the Talmud, Rav Chanina bar Pappa describes an angel taking the drop of semen that creates a child and asking G-d, “Master of the Universe, what will be with this drop? Strong or weak? Wise or foolish? Wealthy or poor?” So much of our lives is predetermined. Is it not?
A term – a controversial term that gained a lot of currency this year was ‘privilege.’ If you are in this room, you likely have a good education, decent health, and opportunities available to you that a good percentage of the population of this country and the world don’t have access to. You were born into that privilege. Just like most of you were born into the privilege and burden of being Jewish, of being part of a great legacy and also part of one of the most hated groups of people in the world. Most of you did not choose these things. They were chosen for you. We are goats, acted upon by biology and luck.
In modern slang, to be a goat means to be the greatest of all times. G.O.A.T. Greatest. Of. All. Times. I don’t know about you, but I’m not feeling that goat these days. I’ve felt much more like a Yom Kippur goat; left to the mercy of forces completely out of my control. Spending months this year stuck at home, hiding from invisible enemies that no one seems to understand, waiting for a cure that may or may not materialize, and hoping this country stays safe and sane. As the days wore on, I felt smaller and smaller, less and less in control. LaShem, la’azazel, to the right, to the left… It’s all chance, it’s all insignificant.
As we say at the end of Vidui: Afar ani b’chayai, I am dust in my life, kal v’chomer b’misosi, all the more so in my death. What are we? If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we’re helpless. Just a speck of dust in space and time.
And that liturgy continues: Harei ani l’fanecha kichli malei busha u’chlima, behold, I am before you like a vessel filled with shame and humiliation. These past months, who did not feel at some point, not just small but ashamed? We saw so much tragedy around us, medically, socially, and we were impotent; completely unable to make a difference. How much time did we spend doing foolish things? How many hours of our short lives left to distractions? Elo-ai, ad shelo notzarti eini chedai, v’ach’shav shenotzarti k’ilu lo natzarti. My G-d, before I was created, I was not worthy, and now that I have been created, it’s as if I never was.
What lasting impact can we claim for ourselves? What meaning can there be? We are just a goat. Sent off on its destination. With control of almost nothing.
But it’s ‘almost’ nothing, and it’s that ‘almost’ that I want to talk about this morning. Because it’s true, we do not have control of so many things in our lives, of most things in our lives, for good and for bad, and the sooner we acknowledge that, the better off we will be. But there is a little tiny something that we do control.
Recently, a number of lectures from Dr. Viktor Frankl were discovered and translated. Dr. Viktor Frankl, that great psychologist, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, and inspiration to so many who have walked through the valley of death. These lectures were given in 1946, less than a year after he was liberated from the clutches of the Nazis. During the war, he had lost his beloved wife, parents, and brother. The shadow of loss loomed over his life. And if that was not bad enough, he faced the very real prospect of nuclear war. As you can imagine, he grappled mightily with the meaning of life.
He joked how a young man once stopped him as he was walking into a lecture, and asked him, “Frankl, I can’t make the lecture. In one sentence, what’s the meaning of life?” Which is like asking a chess master which move is the best move of all. It of course depends on the circumstances; it depends on the moves that preceded it. How do you summarize the purpose of life in a sentence?
Nonetheless, Frankl does share a formula for a meaningful life which I’d like to share with you. It begins, he suggests, with a recognition that most things in life are not controlled by us. It begins with a recognition that the slogans of changing the world are meaningless and foolish – very few people can make such a claim, and any such claim of changing the world is suspect. It begins with a recognition that we are just a goat, and so many of our life circumstances and who we are has been chosen for us through nature and nurture.
But in that recognition, in that small place, there is a choice and there is a responsibility. Frankl quotes Hillel, the great 2nd century sage, in his most well-known saying: Im ein ani li… “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am only for myself, who am I? And if not now, then when?” And this is how he interprets it:
“Let us not forget,” he writes, “that each individual is imperfect… ‘in his own way.’ Expressed in a positive way, he becomes somehow irreplaceable, unable to be represented by anyone else, unexchangeable.” Im ein ani li, mi li? There is no one like me. Never was and never will be.
But that uniqueness alone has no positive value. This is the mistake, I would add, of so many in our generation, who believe that individuality is a value in it of itself. That being different is a goal in it of itself. No, writes Frankl. “Individuality can only be valuable when it is not individuality for its own sake but individuality for the human community.” Because Hillel continues, uch’sh’ani l’atzmi, mah ani? If I am only for myself, what am I? We are called upon to serve. Not all of humankind, that’s fanciful thinking. We are called upon to make the life of those immediately around us more elevated, or at least, more bearable.
And the final clause, the most important of all. V’im lo ach’shav eimotai – and if now, when? It is not we who ask life – or G-d – what the meaning of life is all about. It is G-d who asks us. When does He ask us? Ach’shav. Right now. All the time. In every circumstance we find ourselves in we are being asked that question; what is the meaning? And our entire lives, every ach’shav, is an opportunity to respond to the question G-d asks of us. We could be in Auschwitz, or we could be in America, we could in a lockdown or on a cruise-liner, the question is always being asked of us. What are you, the unique, irreplaceable you, doing in this unique, irreplaceable moment? Are you making your life and the life of those around you better or not? That’s it. That’s life’s purpose in one sentence. So simple and so easily forgotten. And so I’ll repeat it: What are you, the unique, irreplaceable you, doing in this unique, irreplaceable moment? Are you making your life and the life of those around you better or not?
Life is a coloring book. We don’t get to choose the pictures; we don’t even get to choose the page. But we do get to choose the colors. We get to choose how we respond, what we do in that little space – that’s ours.
We do not know what this year has in store for us; I hope we have been humbled enough to accept that. We may be brought to the Temple – maybe this is the year of our redemption. Or we may be brought to the rocky mountains of Azazel. But as we are schlepped along, as we make our way through this short life, there is a question, a set of questions we must answer:
Ime in ani li, Mi li? What qualities have I been blessed with? What character flaws do I need to change?
Uch’sh’ani l’atzmi mah ani? Am I living for myself or am I living my life for others? My family, my community, they are part of my identity and they are part of my purpose.
V’im lo ach’shav eimo’sai? We pray for health, but we may face illness. We pray for wealth, but we may face poverty. We pray for an end to this pandemic, but we may face a second wave. But in this moment, whatever this moment looks like, you are being asked a question; what does life and what does G-d expect of me.
What will you be your answer?