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Updated: Jun 29, 2021

A core principle of many psychotherapies is personal responsibility. If we want to improve, we need to take responsibility for the things that we can change and try our hardest to improve our condition. Yet, there is a danger lurking in such an approach. Sometimes we can take responsibility for things that we can’t change or that aren’t our fault. This could lead to unhealthy shame and self-blaming, which could make matters worse. Striking a balance between personal responsibility and acknowledging what is not in our control is difficult, but essential.

Part of the sacrificial service of the Yom Kippur day was that the Kohen would take two goats and draw lots. The Mishna (Yoma, chapter 6), building on the pesukim (Vayikra 16), explains that the two goats needed to be exactly alike in appearance, size, and value and they needed to be bought at the same time. Based on the drawing, one goat was designated “for Hashem” and the other “for Azazel.” The goat “for Hashem” had the privilege of becoming a sin offering in the Mishkan. The goat “for Azazel” had no such luck. It was sent through the wilderness and thrown off a cliff, as an atonement. Although they were virtually identical, their destinies, as determined by the chance of a lottery, were not.

How are we to understand this cryptic and seemingly capricious ceremony? When considering repentance and atonement, the same tension exists between taking personal responsibility and acknowledging external circumstances beyond our control. On the one hand, repentance requires us to own up to our shortcomings; on the other hand, not everything that goes wrong is completely our fault. In a powerful analysis of the deeper symbolism of this ritual, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explains that “[t]he secret of atonement is thus indicated in the ceremonious casting of the lots. It reflects the basis for the penitent’s claim to forgiveness, that his moral directions were similarly influenced by forces beyond his control, that his sinning was not entirely a free and voluntary choice” (Reflections of the Rav, p. 46). Just like the destiny of the goats was determined by lots, so too, we ask for forgiveness based on our claim that not everything was our fault.

While we have free will, man “does not choose the family into which he is born and reared, nor the society whose values will have such an impact on him. He makes choices, yet major aspects of his life seem to be governed by capricious, chance events and circumstances beyond his control. He is a vulnerable creature whose serenity may suddenly be jarred by overpowering temptations, peculiar turns of events, unexpected political coups, an economic collapse, a terminal illness, or traumatic shocks” (Reflections of the Rav, 41). Thus, according to Rabbi Soloveitchik, the ceremony of the goats acts as a plea to God to keep in mind all of the circumstances that are beyond our control that may have influenced our decisions.

Accordingly, this ceremony provides a healthy counterpoint to the generally appropriate and worthwhile pursuit of self-accountability in the process of change. It is important for us to take responsibility and strive to improve, but it is equally as important not to overdo it to the point of unrealistic and unhealthy self-blame. The ceremony of the goats reminds us to put things in perspective and realize that not everything is our fault and not everything is in our control.


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