In the past few days, the Old Testament scripture lessons appointed in the Daily Office have turned from Exodus and the conclusion of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness to Leviticus and the mandates that God gave his people as a way of remembering their relationship with him. Recently, I have been rereading the story of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, which is chronicled in Leviticus 16. God commanded that on that one day of the year all of his people should assemble in order to recall their sins and seek God’s forgiveness. Having heard the story before, I remembered most of the details, but several little points seemed new to me.
For example, did you remember that there were two goats involved in the atoning ritual? Both were brought to the entrance of the Holy Place by the High Priest, where lots were cast, designating one as a sin offering and the other as “Azazel” (a Hebrew word of uncertain meaning and etymology that is often rendered as “scapegoat”). The first goat was then killed, and its blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat and on the altar as a way of atoning for the people’s uncleanness. The second goat, however, met a surprising fate. God commanded that the High Priest would lay his hands upon the head of the goat and “confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel” and then send it out into the wilderness, where it was set free. As metaphor became reality, the goat literally bore the sins of God’s people and carried them out to a place where no one would find it—out of sight, out of mind.
And then what? Don’t you want to know what happened to the goat? My instinctive desire for closure makes we wish that the story ended in a different way. God could have commanded that the scapegoat be utterly destroyed—burned, annihilated, or consumed until nothing was left. Or God could have commanded that there only be one goat and that the one on whose head all the transgressions were laid be slaughtered and its blood sprinkled on the mercy seat and the altar. But that is not what God told his people to do. God commanded that the Azazel goat be lead into the wilderness and set free. The end of the story is not really an end at all. Sure, like Schrödinger’s Cat, we might assume that the goat never made it out alive, but we cannot know that. We are not supposed to know that. Part of the ritual’s beauty is its unfinished nature.
People often come to me with a problem or a circumstance that they cannot seem to get beyond. Sometimes a friend betrays us, and we cannot find forgiveness for that person. Sometimes we hurt someone we love, and we cannot let go of our guilt. “If only there were some way I could put this feeling in a bottle and throw it into the sea,” we might think to ourselves. But then what? Where will the bottle end up? How will we find real peace? How will we know that our brokenness is gone forever?
The other day, a friend of mine sent me a short reflection on forgiveness that was written by Edmond Browning, former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. In it, Browning stresses that to forgive is not merely to forget. Real forgiveness is harder and more costly than that. True forgiveness is to encounter the transgression and, through love, to embrace transformation and renewal while still remembering the wrong. In other words, to pretend that the wound never existed is to deny its true healing. Only by accepting it and remembering it can we move past it.