A Tale of Two Goats
About this time on Yom Kippur, I start to feel hungry. My usual response is to check my watch, count the pages in the mahzor, think about my menus for Sukkot.
This year I’m trying to respond in a more meaningful way. I found inspiration in the words of the prophet Amos. “A time is coming declares Hashem when I will send a famine upon the land: not a hunger for bread or a thirst for water but for hearing the words of God.”
My goal today is to hunger and thirst not for food or water or the end of the fast but for “hearing the words of God”
The word hunger has 2 definitions:
1. a feeling of discomfort or weakness caused by a lack of food coupled with the desire to eat and
2. A strong desire or craving
A strong desire or craving. Pretty much defines the human condition. We yearn for that which can bring us spiritual fulfillment and impart meaning to our lives: knowledge, enlightenment, understanding, peace, community, fellowship, love, tolerance, and forgiveness.
But we also hunger for things that have the potential to lead us astray: wealth, status, excitement, freedom, power. None of these hungers is inherently bad. But they can spiral out of control.
Today is a day for us to look inwards and consider how our hungers are preventing us from becoming our best selves. According to Rav Soloveichik (spell checker asked if I meant so lovesick!)
the essence of repentance is not the desire for forgiveness but “the desire to be different than I am now”.
When a person finds himself in a situation of sin, he takes advantage of his creative capacity, returns to God, and becomes a creator and self-fashioner. Man, through repentance, creates his own “I”. (from Halchic Man, 1944)
Which of our hungers are serving us well? Which ones are leading us off the derech, away from our better selves?
“We all have hungers which are expressions of our normal human needs. But sometimes those hungers disrupt our capacity to act wisely” This is Heifetz and Linsky in their book Leadership on the Line (page 164). They believe that every person needs some degree of
Power and control
Affirmation and importance
Intimacy and delight
Because, after all, no one wants to feel powerless, unimportant, or lonely
But these fundamental desires can become distorted, magnified and ultimately self-destructive if not kept in check. Think about yourself.
Are you a control freak? Do you seek power to fill an emotional void? Where does your need for power and control take you? Does it crowd out compassion and humility? Does it lead to self-absorption and arrogance?
Or perhaps your deepest hunger is for affirmation and importance. Do you feel unsure of your own worth and relentlessly seek approval from others? Do you seek material wealth and external affirmation to bolster your self-image? Does this lead you to belittle or scorn other people?
And what about intimacy and delight? Are you engaged in healthy activities and relationships that fulfill these needs? Or are you seeking excitement in dangerous and self-destructive pursuits?
Today is a day to think about how we respond to our hungers, the choices we have made and will make in response to them.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch believed that choice is the essential theme of Yom Kippur. The ritual of the 2 goats which is the culmination of the Avodah, or temple service, symbolizes the inner struggle between our best and our worst selves.
One goat is sent into the desert and the other is sacrificed to God. Today we must decide, to paraphrase a note in the Koren mahzor (page 369),
whether to yield to temptation and follow the path of sin to the desert (like azazael) or whether to assert control over our hungers and to offer ourselves in the service of God
Changing is not easy. Which is why we must recommit to it every year. Perhaps you can commit today to placing something that is not serving you on the goat that’s going over that cliff in the desert.
It may be an old mental script you keep repeating to yourself even though you know it interferes with your becoming a more compassionate or generous person. It may be a tendency towards miserliness, fault-finding, gossiping, impatience, or stubbornness.
Whatever it is, name it and commit to working on it. I am going to work on being less judgmental.
What about the other goat? The one that symbolizes our commitment to offer ourselves in the service of God. One way to think about this is to consider God’s 13 attributes of mercy that we will be reciting over and over again tonight at the Ne-ilah service.
The Rambam maintains that these are not attributes of God because god is unknowable. We should instead view these as ways in which God acts in the world. In other words, a perfect template to help us figure out how we can act in the service of God.
Be compassionate (rahum), gracious even to the undeserving (hanun), slow to anger (erech apayim), truthful (emet), and forgiving of all sorts of bad behavior (avon, peshah, chatah)
And, perform acts of kindness, perhaps the ultimate attribute, the only one mentioned twice: rav chesed—abounding in lovingkindness and notzair chesed le’alaphim—extending lovingkindness to a thousand generations.
What better way to practice kindness than to feed the hungry? In the haftarah we just read, Isaiah implores us to “break your bread for the starving” and declares that “if you give of your soul to the starving and answer the hunger of souls oppressed, then your light will shine out in darkness…[and] the Lord will ever guide you and answer your thirst in arid places”.
Today’s Yizkor appeal is for our local food shelf, STEP.
We are all hungry right now but for most of us this is temporary. More than 40 million Americans, including 13 million children, suffer from chronic hunger. 12% of all households in the US are estimated to be “food insecure”.
Food insecurity can range from mild (worry that you won’t have enough food) to severe (people reporting that they went a whole day and night without food during the previous month). In 2016, six million American households reported severe food insecurity.
STEP provides emergency assistance to St Louis Park residents through several programs, transportation, clothes closet, back to school, and its largest program, Food Assistance.
STEP serves over 3000 people each year, or 1 out of every 12-people living in St Louis Park. With 93% of its revenue directly supporting its programs, STEP exceeds the Charities Review Council benchmark of 70%.
In a few hours we will be reciting Ne’ilah, which is short for ne-ilat ha sha’arim or closing of the gates. During this service it is as if we are standing before the gates of heaven imploring God to let us in.
According to the midrash, when you are asked in the world to come “what was your work?” if you answer, “I fed the hungry” you will be told “This is the gate of Hashem, enter into it, you who have fed the hungry”.
What better time to fulfill this mitzvah than today, when we are, at least metaphorically, standing at the gates of Hashem?
Please give generously.
G’mar Chatimah tovah.