Rosh Hashanah marks the birthday of the world, the anniversary of its creation.
First, say our sages, the creator made heaven and earth. Now on the world’s birthday He wants a gift from us. No, not the trinkets we hand each other; He wants more. He wants the gift of the heart, the gift of goodness.
Every Rosh Hashanah, He asks us to take a self-administered test, grade ourselves and underline those areas wherein we are deficient. Lastly, we should repent and ask forgiveness so that on Yom Kippur we are inscribed in the Book of Life.
Truly these are the Days of Awe, but even in these 10 days of tension we need nourishment. And because we are Jewish — the People of the Kitchen as well as the People of the Book — we may as well eat with joy.
We eat sweet things with the hope that they will help bring on a sweet year. A traditional round challah bread and sliced apples dipped in honey are served with wishes for a sweet year.
And we tell the story of the scapegoat.
I know the Lord loves all his children, human and animal. But I have a feeling He has a soft part in his heart for goats. You don’t agree?
You remember in Leviticus: Aaron shall “confess” over the scapegoat all the sins of the people, symbolically transferring a load of guilt from us to the dumbfounded animal, who is then led off to the wilderness, wailing over its lot with its thin, piercing, shofarlike voice. He is the goat who relieves us of sin on Yom Kippur.
Its fate was scripted on the holy day during creation when the animals were assigned their roles. This was a bid day in Eden. All the animals were assembled in the meadow by the water hole. One by one they were summoned to appear before the throne. Here they would receive their assignments.
“Goat,” said the Lord, “I have chosen you, not one of my most elegant creations, to be the savior of Israel. Your swaying back shall bear the sins of the people. I shall send you with your noxious bundle far away into the forsaken lands where the sun never shines. Every year at Yom Kippur, the high priest shall select one of your breed to perform the solitary mission of absolution. You, one of the lessor creations, crying as you enter the wilderness, shall bring forgiveness.”
The goat listened. Fear gripped his heart, and he pawed the earth. He nervously fluttered his lovely eyelids several times in succession. Even then he had long, curly lids.
But the rest of him was strictly junkyard gray with a long, skinny tail like a possum that ineffectively lashed at flies that would torment him in the life to come. His ears, like the donkey’s, were outrageous. He had no horns.
So when the goat heard his magnificent but perilous assignment, he figured the Lord might be generous enough to improve his imperfect appearance. “Lord,” he bleated as he chewed his cud. “Considering the service my tribe will render to your people, could I make a few simple requests?”
And the Creator of all things, from the moss on the tree trunk to Leviathan, nodded positively.
Now, remember that most of the other animals had already been formed, including the sheep. The goat was wary. He could just see those heavy-handed shepherds with biting shears shaving the trembling lambs.
“Please, sir,” he shrilled in his high voice, “no thick, rich fleece for me, but a nice coat of scraggly fur to keep me warm will be just fine.”
And somehow this farsighted creature knew of mutton stew supplied by fat sheep. So he begged the Creator to make him a muscular animal with stringy flesh. “Bony will be great, please.”
Well, that took care of survival, thought the clever goat, who was envisioning a long and happy life.
But consider the broad back of the donkey. Definitely not an asset if you wanted to wander loose in the meadow without some lazy human loading you up with his paraphernalia. So he requested a slender build and shoulders no wider than his head.
“And please, sir, a digestive system that can handle tree bark and all the litter that mankind will invent and scatter in the world to come,” Maybe, he thought, my clan and I can provide a solution to the waste storage problem that sooner or later will overwhelm mankind.”
“And I almost forgot,” said the world’s first negotiator, “how ’bout some horns instead of these embarrassing ears. There should be grandeur in my banishment to the wilderness, not burlesque.”
The Lord sighed and agreed. The bargain was struck. So the goat had his way, which is a small price, I say, for the load of sin he carries off to the wilderness.
Ted Roberts is a writer in Huntsville, Ala.