It was barely a week ago that we ended Passover, and in our initial preparation for the holiday, we as a community came together to burn our spiritual chametz, that which enslaves us from the inside. After some deliberation we each wrote our personal slaveries on a piece of paper and then cast it into fire – just like that our tormentors turned to smoke and ashes before our eyes. In that moment I wished that it could be so easy to be rid of my inner slaveries, but I knew that the act of putting them to the fire was only the first step.
Interestingly, this week’s parashah, Acharei Mot, outlines a similar ritual as part of the duties of the High Priest on Yom Kippur. He is given special instructions regarding the sin offering that is made on behalf of the people of Israel. Two goats are brought before the High Priest, who randomly designates one for God and one for Azazel. The goat designated for God is slaughtered and offered on the altar as a sin offering, but the other is left alive. After the sin offering is made, the High Priest must place his hands on the head of the living goat, and confess over it all the sins of the Israelites. With the action of laying hands, all of Israel’s sins are transferred to the goat, the goat is sent off into the wilderness – and thus the term “scapegoat” is coined – that little goat now carrying the weight of the entire people’s sins off to an inaccessible location, never to be heard from again. Just like my inner slaveries that I threw into the fire, the sins of the Israelites are similarly cast off in an instant. But are they really gone?
We find an answer, not in the goat himself, but in the fact that he is not sent into the wilderness alone: Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of a live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites…then the goat shall be sent off to the wilderness by the hand of a time-bound man. (Leviticus 16:21)
The verse describes the goat’s escort as “ish iti,” a “time-bound man.” So who is this person, and why are they the one chosen to accompany the goat into the wilderness? In fact, why does the goat need an escort at all?! I mean, if it were my sins being sent off, I’d never want to see them again once I’d made atonement and they were off my chest! There’s nothing more demoralizing than to do t’shuvah, only to have our sins continue to follow us, haunt us, and remind us of our past failings.
And yet, it is precisely someone’s job to walk for days on end, through a vast and treacherous wasteland, alongside this physical reminder of all our sins. It seems that even when we’ve made our atonement, or a resolution to free ourselves from inner slaveries – whether placed on the head of a goat or a paper that’s cast into the fire – that the ghosts of our past sins don’t immediately disappear from our consciousness, that there is often a long stretch of time where we feel them lurking right behind us. What the “time-bound man” then comes to teach us is that to be free of their grasp we must lead our sins and their associated shame consciously, patiently, and tenderly into the abyss of our consciousness.
The well-known commentator Rashi calls this escort a “ready man,” someone who’s had time to prepare to serve just this purpose. Indeed some of us have been working our programs, investigating our pasts, checking our blind spots – these actions empower and prepare us for the journey, giving us shields to defend ourselves from the lingering shame that can cause us to lose our way in the wilderness.
The Chizkuni offers a different interpretation, saying that the “time-bound man” is one “whose time has come,” who was destined not to live out the year. Certainly some of us identify with him, our reckless behavior threatening our very existence. In this case, it is our experience with absolute rock-bottom that jolts us awake, heightening our awareness of the need to let go of these sins and their accompanying shame.
The Rashbam offers one last interpretation of the “time-bound man” as someone familiar with the paths of the desert region. Most certainly, this one is all of us. Each year, each week, each day – we do t’shuvah and attempt to learn and move forward from our mistakes. We travel the paths through the wilderness not only on Yom Kippur but constantly, back and forth, as we continually seek to free ourselves from the weight of the sins we’ve atoned for but have yet to forgive ourselves for.
The lesson of the “time-bound man” is one of patience and self-compassion, knowing that being truly free of our sins doesn’t happen immediately when our Passover seders are over or when we finally make our amends. True freedom – from sin, from shame – takes time. My own experience has taught me that some shame lingers – that just when I think I’ve let it go, something triggers a memory that feels like it rewinds all of my progress. At that point I have to remind myself of the steps I’ve taken, the distance I’ve traveled from my former self, each small yet significant grain of sand that I’ve transformed. The path is not linear, and I often need my friends who are also traveling this journey to remind me in those triggering moments that each step through the wilderness of forgiveness gets us closer to a future of true self-determination, free of shadows of the past.
May we all see ourselves as the “ready man” – prepared to weather the journey through the wilderness – and may we patiently and gently lead our shame to the abyss, leave it there, and find self-forgiveness.
Myra Meskin, Rabbinic Intern, Spiritual Counseling