I have always wondered why there were two goats in the Yom Kippur ritual, one that is sacrificed and one that is sent off into the wilderness.
Last year I imagined that the one that was killed in the Temple bore our atonement for all the wrongs we committed, the wrongs we could name: the hurts we caused, the lies we told, the gossip we spread.
The other carried with it into the wilderness something less tangible, less culpable: the misplaced fantasies of our lives. We all are weavers of fantasy. That is what carries us forward from day to day: imagining enchanted moments that might burst upon us tomorrow; irresistible strangers who might come our way; unnamed longings that might be fulfilled; mystical truths that might be revealed; or even earthly discoveries we might make.
But while fantasy stokes the fires of our will and drives the passion that pulls us from day to day, not all fantasy is good. Those that distract us from the work we must do, from the loved ones who lay claim to us, from appreciating the quotidian, the present, and the goodness close at hand, those we must release. It is those that the second goat carries with it into the wilderness.
But perhaps this is also true: Every new year, we cross a new threshold, a turning, a possibility of change, where past and future meet and diverge. (Indeed, every moment possesses the magic of such a threshold, though we rarely acknowledge and act upon it, except now.) Every new year, we stand and pause on that threshold looking back, and looking out.
Perhaps the first goat, then, the one that must be sacrificed, is the one that looks back, the one that carries upon it the regrets and mistakes of our past, all that we wish to undo and forget, all that we apologize for. That goat helps us put an end, close the door, to a past that should remain that way.
The second goat is the one that is sent out into the vast uncharted space of the wilderness, the space that lies, waiting, before us. Perhaps this second goat is not about the past but the future, about promising us that no matter how tight a place we find ourselves in now, if we turn our eyes to the wilderness, we will see that spaciousness and opportunity lie before us.
One goat represents the past; the other, the future. They meet at this moment, on this threshold of time, in the place where we stand. We begin with the one on the altar, and then turn our eyes to follow the one that we send into the wilderness.
We have always been drawn to and wary of the wilderness. It is a place of opposites: a place of danger and freedom, revelation and loss, abundance and lack, God-filled and empty, Sinai and struggle. It is the opposite of the Garden of Eden. And yet, paradoxically, it is the place where we as a people were fashioned and flourished.
Perhaps that second goat is there to tell us not to be afraid to enter the wilderness. It is there with the big sky, the vast horizon and room to grow that our future lies.
We just have to dare.
(Photo from bibleplaces.com)