The Eyes of a Goat

(Drash on Parashat Acharei Mot)

It was two weeks ago, just before my weekly online Leviticus class, that this mouse and I found ourselves staring each other down. I had caught it in a trap under our kitchen sink. I use a live trap because, living in the woods, it feels unfair to kill mice for the crime of my having invaded their territory. But my commitment to fair play, I confess, does not extend to giving them the run of my kitchen.

So I put the mouse, trap and all, on the passenger seat of my car; threw my kid in the back. It craned its neck to look at me out of the trap's little skylight. I dropped the kid at school and drove another few miles to a park with a lagoon and grass but fewer trees and less cover than I'd remembered. I might have found a better place, but I was pressed for time.

I released the mouse. It jumped out, took a few steps, turned around and continued to look at me, as if wondering what I wanted to do next. Our eyes met, and there was a strange, unexpected rapport between us. A rapport facilitated by the fact that it was not human. I was not required to think of anything witty to say. I was not obligated to be "on" as I would have to be with a congregant. I was not having to be a parent or a partner or anything at all. I was, in that a moment, a creature. We were two creatures, checking each other out. I towered over it, yet we were on equal footing.

I can't help but wonder if the High Priest felt something similar, making confession to a goat, as the ancient Yom Kippur ritual, described in this week's portion, required. Laying hands on it and looking in its eyes, in a posture not unlike a vulcan mind meld, complete with Cohanic live-long-and-prosper hand position. To the goat, with its knowing eyes and uncanny human face -- but still clearly not a human -- the priest could, really, say anything. There would be no impediment to the truth. And if he is going to place on this animal all the sins of Israel, including his own, he needs to be honest. Exhaustive. No hedging. No whitewashing. No pride. Would such honesty ever be possible with another human being, where relationships and roles inevitably intrude?

But with a goat, the priest can speak truth. He can let go of vanity. He can list the mistakes, the missteps, the spiteful acts, the terrible crimes of the people. He can confess that as many as he is reciting there are many more he doesn't even know about. And he can say things he couldn't say to another Israelite. Like, "I hate my job." Or "the manifestation of the Divine on the doorstep is a parlor trick" or anything else too weighty, dangerous or heretical to say elsewhere. This goat won't be talking.

But then, after this unimpeded flow of confession, the priest's job was to send this now-burdened innocent into the wilderness. What is up with this? You'd think that the magic of this expurgation would come in the form of laying sins on the goat and then, frankly, doing away with it.

But another goat already did bite the dust as part of this Yom Kippur ritual. One randomly selected to have the great honor or bad luck of becoming a chataat or sin offering. You would think that the slaughter of that animal would have had the desired effect of lifting the people's collective burden of sin.

But no. That first goat, scholars would explain, wasn't meant to lift the people's sin at all. But to clear the air of the Holy of Holies, to cleanse the metaphysical landscape. Goat Number One is medicine for God, not for us.

But Goat Number Two absorbs our myriad sins. It is the perfect choice of animal for this task. As any of us who lives in the country knows, goats can digest anything, no matter how sharp the thorns, no matter how poisonous the leaves.

And so, burdened by our misdeeds, this goat is sent out to Azazel - a place in a rocky wilderness. Most of the sages say it's a mountain. Ramban reminds us that Azazel might not be a place but a being - Samael, Israel's accuser. Perhaps Azazel is a vestige of an earlier religion. Azazel, the demon or horned god - the image of whom continues to haunt our folklore and pop culture to this day. Or maybe the place name could be read as ez azal, the place where the goat is gone. Or maybe oz azal, the place where strength runs out, because truthfully, the burden of sin takes so much muscle to carry.

But here's the odd part about the ritual, a predicament. All this trouble to rid us of our sins. But somewhere out there, our sins are still wandering around, eating scrub. Our misdeeds have been moved out of the precinct, but not out of existence.

But maybe that's not a predicament. Maybe that's the point.

We can't undo what we've done. Our transgressions have affected others and us. We may atone for our sins; we may seek with whole hearts to heal the harms we've inflicted. But there's no going back to zero, either for the world or for us.

You see, I am who I am not only because of the things I'm proud of. I am who I am because of the things I'm ashamed of too. The things I wouldn't be able to bring myself to tell a friend or lover or even a therapist. Things I could probably only confide to a goat.

And those missteps, those regrets, those jealousies and angers are not all inherently evil things. They are the flipsides of my deepest longing. My longing for love or for safety or for belonging. Deep longing that, in these cases, went wrong. Or were left incomplete.

There is too much of me in my sins for my sins merely to be eradicated. I need them out there somewhere. In exile, for sure, but alive.

And so there is the goat, alive, sated with our sins, wandering the terrain.

Who doesn't feel some tenderness for it? We all root for an exile. Torah knows this. That is why when Hagar and Ishmael are exiled, we get to follow them through a similarly treacherous landscape. We see their despair and their rescue. And later we see the Children of Israel turned out from their land. We hear their lament, and then we get to witness their return, mouths full of song.

When I feel compassion for the goat, I feel it for myself too. For the parts of me in exile: the longing that I secretly do want to have return, the choices I want to revisit and maybe, this time, do something better with.

So nu? The mouse. There we were in the park, staring. It began to glance around for its next step. Upon this mouse I suddenly released a surprising flurry of emotion. My desire to be a fair person, to live harmoniously with nature; my crazy desire to pick it up and keep it as a pet. My guilt at sending it to an unknown end when it is blameless, for reasons that are, really, no more than human vanity. And somewhere there was a shameful childlike desire just to toy with it and see what would happen. All of this, the noble and the ugly, burst out of me in silent confession.

The mouse just then caught sight of a hole in a tree trunk 20 feet away. It turned tail and scampered, dove in, and was lost to view. I got in my car and drove home to put on a good face in order to get on line and greet my classmates. By then, and certainly by now, the mouse could have been picked off by cat or dog or redtail hawk. But I hope not. It carries too much of me.


This drash was written as an exercise for my class, "Learning to Love Leviticus," taught by Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan. Some of the ideas about the exile of longing were developed with Ellen Atzilah Solot for a Storahtelling performance at Congregation Ner Shalom on a previous Yom Kippur.