Introduction to the Torah Reading – Yom Kippur Morning, 5772
Rabbi Michelle Dardashti, Temple Beth El
This was the subject heading of an email I received last year—the day before Yom Kippur—as I sat pondering the meaning of the strange and confusing ritual described in the section of the Torah we are about to read. The email was from Jackie, one of my closest childhood friends, now a surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
As some of you may recall reading, there was a shooter that day one of the surgical floors of the hospital and a surgeon was shot and critically wounded. As that doctor lay bleeding, and the shooter held hostages, Jackie wrote to me from a building across the street where she and her colleagues had been removed and placed on lockdown.
Jackie’s question was “WHY?” Why was she where she was at the moment of the shooting; WHY was her fellow surgeon where he was. If the injured doctor was conscious, she imagined he was asking the same questions.
Instances of wondering—why, or why me—have been echoed on the world stage in the past year through an abundance of human and natural acts of craziness/randomness, resulting in tragic fatalities (and also unintended heroes). From high profile cases like the shooting in Tucson, targeting Gabrielle Giffords—and many other less-covered but no less shocking stabbings and shootings with seemingly random victims and survivors—to the most close to home and fresh in our minds, Hurricane Irene… people all over the country and world have occasion to ask this question every day: WHY ME?
This is the question calling out from our souls at this period in the Jewish year in particular, as we take account of what and where the past year has brought us.
The question may be asked out of a sense of overwhelming and inexplicable blessing: how come—against all odds—I beat that disease or lived through that crash?
Or it may be that we are asking the question this year from a place that is overburdened with hardship and tragedy – a feeling of disproportionate suffering and injustice: why have I, or my family, been plagued with illness; why can’t I seem to get a break professionally, personally? Why do I have such bad luck?!
What is the meaning of my having seemingly been chosen to survive … or seemingly chosen to suffer?
At the center of today’s Torah reading stand two goats. Shnei seirei eezim, two identical male goats stand before God, awaiting opposite goralot, or fates –fates that literally befall them. Based on a casting of lots by Aaron, the High Priest, one will die and one will live. Or, more accurately, one will die immediately, being ritually slaughtered and sacrificed to God and the other will be sent off into the wilderness to whatever cruel or pleasant fate awaits him there …
In this reading, in which it is easy to get lost amidst all the gory details of Aaron’s purification and sin offerings on behalf of his household and the whole community of Israel, my attention is refocused and imagination captured by the image of these two goats standing before God: as the lots fall, I imagine them each wondering: why me?
On the Yamim Noraim, we are made to feel like these 2 goats: we are reminded in numerous ways that our fate hangs in the balance … and that the hand we are dealt is utterly unpredictable …may in fact seem random.
But today’s Torah reading addresses itself not to the question of the goats (“why me”), but to a second, more difficult question, represented by Aaron: WHAT NOW?
The context in which Aaron performs this atonement ceremony is easy to read past, but critical, I believe to our understanding. Our reading opens immediately following the death of Aaron’s two sons. The Torah does not tell us why Nadav and Avihu die suddenly in their service of God … and the countless midrashim, which offer widely varying and often conflicting explanations, only reinforce the readers’ impression that no one has the answer. We are left with a sense that this is our answer: not knowing.
And yet somehow, following this humbling and painful, tragic and inexplicable experience, Aaron continues to serve God. In fact, he goes on to literally create order out of the chaos of life: the service he performs at the instruction of God is called SEDER haAvodah – ORDER of the Service.
The goat ritual comes to teach Aaron—and us—not to waste too much time on the question of “why me.” Things will befall us and we will not know why. But we can use those experiences as opportunities to check in … to shape our destiny. Steve Jobs, who died an untimely death this week, captured this sentiment beautifully in words spoken as part of his Stanford University Commencement Address just 6 years ago. “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked; there is no reason not to follow your heart.”
I believe this lesson is embedded in the Hebrew word goral, the word used by the Torah to mean “lot”—the objects which determine the goats’ fate. Goral, in modern Hebrew, actually means both fate and destiny.
Perhaps our lesson lies in these two different meanings of the word. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik writes beautifully on the distinction between them: While our fate points to the aspects of our lives that we cannot control, destiny, he writes, "is an active existence in which humanity confronts the environment into which she or he was cast…Humanity’s mission in this world is to turn fate into destiny, an existence that is passive and influenced, into an existence that is active and influential."
There is no definitive answer to the question of “why me …” Instead, it is left up to each of us to determine post-facto answers—to be living responses—to this question through the actions we take in the wake of what befalls us, through the destiny we create out of our fate.
The HHD liturgy reminds us repeatedly that all of our days are numbered and we know not the number - (this is most pronounced in the Unetane Tokef, but is hinted at everywhere through pleas to be inscribed in the book of life and allusions to the fragility of life and the human condition…).
But these scary metaphors and reminders of our mortality come not simply to scare us, but to push us to take the FATE that befalls us—and choose our DESTINY. We are not goats, we are discerning human beings with tremendous agency.
If we are indeed granted, please God, another year to live, the question is: how can we make sure that we are not simply headed off to wander purposelessly in the wilderness?
“Remembering that you are going to die,” Jobs said, “is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked; there is no reason not to follow your heart.”
WHAT NOW? This is the real question that the liturgy and biblical readings on this day push us to ask and answer. How will we claim this agency that comes with the blessing of tomorrow? As a teacher of mine once noted, the real meaning of Yom Kippur is what we do the day after.
May we each be blessed with the strength to respond to the “craziness” in our lives—both good and bad—and our nagging questions of “why me,” by boldly deciding, what now.
As quoted by Rabbi Avi Weiss in a D’var Torah on Parashat Acharei Mot, 5770.