Acharei Mot and Little Girl (or: No More Scapegoats)

Little Girl and Ralf

On Wednesday, I noticed a small brown and black dog running at full speed across our front lawn.

I sighed.

We live near a highway rest area. Some people go to that location to drop off unwanted pets. But when I got on a jacket and went out to look, the dog was gone.

The next day, when my husband, Ralf, and I came home from work, we saw the same dog in our front garden.

“Oh, no,” I said. “Honey, I think we have a stray.”

My husband does not much like dogs. He worked as a security guard to help pay college costs when he was young and had to deal with aggressive dogs, who attacked and bit him. When Ralf is around other people’s canines he is polite, but distant. He does not pet their animals, he avoids them.

So it was odd – even strange – that after collecting our mail I turned to see him crouching down and calling to the strange animal.

Life as I knew it then turned upside down. The dog headed toward my husband and literally climbed onto his lap. He murmured softly to the creature, who repeatedly tried to lick his face.

I moved closer. The animal was starved to the bone. Her pink collar was frayed. She ran off to pick up the cadaver of a squirrel, then dropped it and came back to the house. I went inside to get her a bowl of water and cat food and then to call the appropriate authorities.

I came out to take turns with Ralf. Between wolfing down bowlfuls of cat food she sidled up to me to be petted and loved.

“Little Girl,” I said, “you smell pretty ripe.”

Over the next half hour we found a rope to tie to Little Girl’s collar and promptly fell utterly, completely in love.

She was not a pretty dog. She was, however, the very soul of love.

Nevertheless: our cat was not happy that she was outside his window. My husband has allergies, and we knew we couldn’t keep her.

“I feel guilty,” he said.

Watching her being taken away was painful. That night, I lay awake thinking of her beautiful, loving, smelly and starved self on my husband’s lap. I woke several times to worry about whether she would eventually be put down because no one would have her. In the morning, I called the shelter.

Little Girl, they told me, already had a possible home. I shouldn’t worry, they told me. “She is so lovable,” I was told, “we can guarantee she won’t be put down.”

Still, I gave them my number. “Please call me if she doesn’t find a home,” I said. “I’ll find her one if I have to.”

And then I sat down to reread my birth parsha, Acharei Mot.

Two goats, I read. One for the sacrifice and one to be sent to Azazel. I thought back to every Yom Kippur, when I chant about how we found, every year, the scapegoat for Israel.

As Jonathan Sacks explains in his book, Covenant and Conversation, some commentators have claimed that the name is actually a compound noun: It means “the goat (ez) that was sent away (azal). And when an William Tyndale produced the very first English translation of Tanakh, he rendered Azazel as “the escapegoat.” So, Sacks says, we have come to our present-day iteration of that word.

Every year I chant about an all-too human practice: making animals bear our burdens. Animals are there for our sake, to comfort and to surprise us. They offer their playful or sleepy selves to be stroked because, in such great part, we are calmed, we are made happier by petting them.

In this parsha, the escapegoat carries our burdens and bad behaviors away for us. We have atoned, we are cleansed.

Little Girl was sent away from whoever owned her as the very expression of human, ugly behavior. She was sent into a wilderness and she was starved of food and comfort and safety. She was a scapegoat.

All of us are engaged in banishing animals in one way or another: we destroy their habitats, poison them with our own products, and hunt them down – even now – for their body parts. They are bearing our burdens.

Just now I want to chant this passage, imagine those two goats, reimagine their fate and set them free.

May there be no scapegoats for Israel.

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From Regret to Joy – A Yom Kippur Journey

Flame_Apophysis_Fractal_FlameAlmost exactly fifteen years ago, my father-in-law, Willy, took a decided turn for the worse. Willy’s wife, Evelyn, had nursed him for over five years, hardly leaving their apartment except for necessary errands.

That fall, my husband, Ralf, was getting ready to leave for Germany to guest lecture at the university in Ludwigsburg. Just two weeks before Ralf was to leave the United States, Willy was hospitalized. Because of his father’s illness he planned to go to Hagen, first, where his parents lived.

Ten days before Ralf’s departure, Evelyn, called to let us know that Willy had become unresponsive. He did not recognize anyone, even his own wife. He could not talk. Still, Evelyn told us, he might come out of his present state.

We knew Ralf would be leaving soon. We assumed we had time.

Evelyn called five days later. Ralf wasn’t home; he was at UNC Charlotte, teaching. Willy had just hours, she told me, not days to live.

“It’s too late,” she told me.

I began making calls.

First, to a travel agent, to get Ralf on a flight that night. Then, Ralf’s colleagues, who would need to take over his final classes at UNCC. Then, finally, when I knew he had finished teaching, I called Ralf at his office.

“Ralf,” I said. “Willy is dying. Come home right away, honey,” I added. “You have a flight out of Charlotte tonight at 7 p.m.”

“I’ll never make it,” he said.

“Yes, you will,” I said. “Everything is taken care of. It’s all arranged. Colleagues will teach for you next week. I’ve started packing your suitcase. Come home.”

By the time Ralf was home, all he had to gather up were any academic materials he needed to teach in Germany.

“I can’t focus,” he said. His hands were shaking.

He was at the airport that night with half an hour to spare. I calculated the flight time to Frankfurt, the train trip to Hagen, the taxi drive home, the trip to the hospital. What were the chances that Ralf could make it to Willy’s bedside before he died?

I don’t know what role chance played. I do know that when Willy saw his son, his eyes cleared; his face came alive. It was the first time he had responded to anything or anyone for many days.

Later, Ralf joked with his father and told him, “This will teach you to stop smoking.” Willy managed to lift an eyebrow and breathe something like a laugh.

He died that night.

Ralf came home a few weeks later, after taking care of the funeral, the paperwork, and his mother. He had to drive twelve hours each weekend to and from Ludwigsburg where he was teaching and Hagen. He did all this with pneumonia in both lungs. There was no time for his own grief.

He was quiet and calm when he returned. When I asked him how he was feeling, he would say that he was all right. It wasn’t, after all, as if we hadn’t expected it.

Two years later, I walked into our kitchen to find my husband leaning over the counter, his hands covering his face.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I can’t explain it,” he said, looking up. His face was drawn. “It’s ridiculous. So long afterwards.”

Then Ralf told me. The night Willy died Evelyn wanted to leave the hospital. Ralf wanted to stay. It was very late; she had practically lived in that room for days. Ralf was torn between his exhausted mother’s exhaustion and the look in his father’s eyes.

“I can’t forget his eyes,” Ralf told me. “Pleading.”

For two years, Ralf had punished himself for leaving his father, following his mother out the door, and driving her home.

We arrive at Yom Kippur filled with regrets. If we had only had more time. If we had only said these words, not those. If only….

Give us a few moments to reflect on the past year, and we will recall the priorities we ignored, the hopes we did not honor, the needs we repressed. Yes, we failed to do all that we longed to do.

How might we honor the regrets of the last year? They came straight from our hearts, which are now sore and wounded. How do we free ourselves from the weight of “might have” and “should have”?

Our regrets come from our longings.

Let us discern our heart’s longings. May we know compassion – from ourselves and from others, and from the Holy One of all Blessing, who, our Torah tells us, once promised us blessing simply for appearing at the Tabernacle to ask for it.

You let me sing, you lifted me up, you gave my soul a beam to travel on. You folded your distance back into my heart. You drew the tears back to my eyes. You hid me in the mountain of your word. You gave the injury a tongue to heal itself. You covered my head with my teacher’s care, you bound my arm with my grandfather’s strength. O beloved speaking, O comfort whispering in the terror, unspeakable explanation of the smoke and cruelty, undo the self-conspiracy, let me dare the boldness of joy. (Leonard Cohen, Psalm 19)

May we turn from regret to joy: Joy in the offer of forgiveness and understanding. Joy in the opportunities ahead to live a life of love and hope and kindness.

May we know the boldness of joy.

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Until the Heart Breaks

When I was a child I sang in the synagogue choir,
I sang until my voice broke. I sang
first voice and second voice. I’ll sing
Until my heart breaks, first heart and second heart.
A psalm.
Yehuda Amichai

What do we long for?  For connection.  For safety.  For love.

Why do we sing? Because we hope. 

Tonight, Yom Kippur begins, and with it, a day when we sing from the midst of our broken hearts.

We have accrued dross and weight that is unbearable – how can we throw off the miseries we experienced – much less committed this past year?  How can we forgive ourselves, feel we have the right and the chance to try again, to start again, to believe again?  Teshuva, return — we pray for it.

From the depths we must call out, from the knowledge and the full recognition of our failings.  There must be a way to waken, to see the world clearly.  We belong to this world.

More importantly, the world belongs to us.  We are responsible.

When has night given way to morning?  The rabbis say:  When you look into the face of the person who is beside you and you can see that this person is your brother or your sister, then the night has ended.

When you have learned that everyone is particular and yet connected to the source of life itself, to the earth we live on, to the people who share it with us, the morning has begun.

May I sing the song of my people with commitment and joy.  First voice.

May I sing the song of humanity with hope. Second voice.

May I sing all things divine, for they are everywhere around me, in the faces of those who walk beside me, in the souls of those I do not know, in the footprints of the creatures who hide in the trees. 

I’ll sing until my heart breaks.

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