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Acharei Mot – Put it on the Goat

06/28/2024 02:24:24 PM


Rabbi Nat Ezray

Acharei Mot – Put it on the Goat

In my class on giving sermons in rabbinical school, we were told to be able to summarize our sermons in a sentence.  Here is today’s sentence: Put all your wrongdoing on the goat and let them go.  Send it into the wilderness!

That is the take away our Bat Mitzvah, Eva, and many others learn from the strange and dramatic ritual describing the first Yom Kippur in this morning’s Torah portion.  The lesson of letting go is so important.  Too often we hold onto the wrongs we have done and it seeps into our lives in all kinds of ways.  Today, I would like to look at why this is such a difficult challenge and look at examples of individual and communal wrongs of which we might let go.

Let’s start with the story. Two indistinguishable goats are brought before the High Priest and lots are drawn, one bearing the words “to the Lord,” – for the goat who is to be sacrificed; the other bearing the name “to Azazel” for the goat to be sent off into the wilderness after the High Priest confessed the sins of the nation.  Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man.  Thus, the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness. (p. 682 – Lev. 16:21-22).

Almost a thousand years ago, the great Rabbi Maimonides explained this ritual symbolically: “There is no doubt that sins cannot be carried like a burden and taken off the shoulder of one being to be laid on that of another being. But these ceremonies are of a symbolic character, and serve to impress people with a certain idea, and to induce them to repent – as if to say, we have freed ourselves of our previous deeds, have cast them behind our backs, and removed them from us as far as possible.”

This ritual is about letting go of wrongdoing. It gives us steps:  recognizing the wrongs we have done, acknowledging them in a way that leads to changing one’s behavior, and then truly allowing ourselves to move forward without that burden. The questions for us are:

  • Of what do I personally need to let go?  
  • What do we, as a society, need to send into the wilderness?

I want to suggest today that one thing of which we need to let go is shame. Let’s understand how shame impacts us.

I thought about this when I watched the Oprah Winfrey special about how she carried around the shame and blame connected to weight.  She shared how we, as a society, blame and shame people for obesity.  It happens all of the time. She recounted being called “bumpy, lumpy and downright dumpy” on the cover of TV Guide in 1990. She talked about how she took on the shame that the world gave to her and hoped her special could help release the stigma, shame and judgment.

It is not as simple as saying, “put it on the goat.”  It requires hard work and reflection to truly do this.  For Oprah, understanding obesity not as a lack of willpower or personal failing, but as messages our brain sends us about eating, gave her hope and an ability to break the cycle of blame and shame. 

It resonated for me.  I have spent years of trying to disconnect weight from shame.  I believe it with all my heart and mind.  Yet, it is hard not to listen to messages from myself that I should be able to figure this out - if only I…. – knowing I needed to put it on the goat!  The messages are pervasive and difficult not to internalize.  My first review here many years ago mentioned that some did not like that my shirt sometimes came out over my belt.  Really?  Sometimes that happens even with a good belt when you have my build.  It’s hard not to internalize shame.  So we do the hard work intellectually, spiritually and communally.  It is different for each person.  Some might really embrace being happy with themselves regardless of weight. Others may seek different programs to be healthy. Others may say that medication helps with the messages from the brain.  Whatever each person decides, let’s respect it so that we can put it on the goat.  Let’s be done with shaming others and ourselves over our weight.

Obesity is one example of how shame can be debilitating.  As I suggest putting shame on the goat and sending it out, let’s study it more deeply through the wisdom of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory and from researcher and storyteller Brene Brown, who both have taught powerfully about the danger of shame.  I have shared their teachings over the years and find their wisdom invaluable. Both teachers make a distinction between shame and guilt.  Shame is a feeling that something we have done makes us unworthy.  Guilt is an act we have done that is wrong, but which we can correct.  In Brene Brown’s words: “Guilt leads you to say ‘I did something bad’.  Shame leads you to say, ‘I am bad’”.  Shame is the painful experience of feeling that we are flawed and unworthy of love. Rabbi Sacks explains it this way: “Shame attaches to the person.  Guilt attaches to the act.” 

Let’s cultivate good guilt, the kind where we listen to our conscience and let that self-knowledge and introspection lead us to growth and forgiveness – putting it on the goat and moving forward. We put those acts connected to guilt on the goat and let it go as we affirm that we can change.

Let’s be aware where shame has entered our lives, sometimes subtly and even unconsciously, and other times overtly.  It is connected to so many things: mental illness – anxiety and depression are rampant and often seen through the lens of shame; career choices; financial difficulties; body image; gender and sexuality decisions; grades – and the list goes on!  Shame only makes things worse!  In what ways does it apply to you? Let’s embrace today’s lesson of putting things on the goat and sending it off.  The impact will be that you can truly know you are loved and valued, a reflection of divinity.

Shame is not just what we internalize; It is also where we might participate, even unconsciously. Since initially teaching this distinction between shame and guilt years ago, shame culture has grown and intensified in our country and in the world.  Those who do not agree with us are put into the camp of deserving to be shamed.  People are outed and cancelled for an opinion we may not like.  Public shaming by those who know nothing about us or the context in which our acts take place jump on the bandwagon and soon the lynch mob grows. Shaming happens simply for who you may be, like so many Israeli academics, Jewish students and public figures have experienced in recent days. There is a breaking into camps.  We are seeing it particularly around the campus culture connected to Israel and Gaza.  If you are not in the right camp you are shamed, threatened and rejected.  Israeli and Jewish students feel like pariahs.  It is so painful to watch and has nothing to do with protest and everything to do with shame culture.

Rabbi Sacks explains that the response to shame culture is we hide, afraid of being found out.  We evade, blaming others to avoid disgrace.  We throw shame onto others. It has a devastating impact. We don’t talk to each other, but at each other.  College as a place of dialogue, exploration and learning is lost. Those who want nuance and to understand each other are shoved aside.  It is dangerous.  Brene Brown links shame with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, abuse, relationship issues and eating disorders.

Whenever I give sermons about this topic, someone will respond, “But Rabbi, some terrible things deserve to receive shame.”  Of course that is true.  In fact, shame can be a powerful tool for categorizing certain behaviors. But remember the distinction between guilt and shame.  Allow space to engage with behaviors deserving of shame as opportunities to engage, not with those who won’t listen, but with those who may come to understand a different point of view. Let the examples of where shame is called for be rare exceptions.  Know that shame paralyzes.  Know that shame unleashed divides. Be aware of how shame is playing out, individually and societally.  Notice it.  Try to partner in minimizing it.

So what do we do? Begin by naming it.  Note that the High Priest put both hands on the head of the goat and confessed.  Call it out.  As we talk about shame as individuals, Brene Brown teaches that we should have a trusted person with whom we share areas of our life where we feel shame. Vulnerability, honesty and receiving support when we share our shame is the beginning of sending it away. Writing is a way I name things.  Thinking about shame I may feel or have caused and thinking about how to understand it and respond to it allows a different behavior or mindset to develop so that I can send the shame off. 

Brene Brown also teaches the power of connection, be it in relationship or a community.  She writes: “True belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world.”  Let’s create communities where we reject shame and embrace honesty, authenticity, vulnerability.

Judaism is a religion of hope, and its great rituals of repentance and atonement are part of that hope. We are not condemned to live endlessly with the mistakes and errors of our past. Both our guilt that we act upon, and our awareness of shame that we might internalize, allow us to change and grow.  Let’s imagine the scene of the High Priest confessing and sending the goat off into the wilderness and let it symbolize that we too have the capacity to let go and move forward.   May we take these lessons to heart. Shabbat Shalom

Sat, July 13 2024 7 Tammuz 5784