When our children were growing up we had an imaginary friend who lived in the house with us, whose name was AILAT – spelled A I L A T. Ailat used to turn up in all kinds of places and situations, but mostly appeared when something had gone wrong. If, for example, a glass of water spilled during dinner, it was often Ailat’s fault. One time when someone had taken a pair of scissors and given a teddy bear a haircut, when we went to talk to Talia about it she told us that actually Ailat had done it. And after a while it seemed that pretty much every time something went wrong, every time the children did something they knew they were not supposed to do, it was actually Ailat’s fault, and not theirs. Ailat, you see, had essentially become the scapegoat in the Schwartz household.
The scapegoat is of course a central symbol of the most sacred day of our year, Yom Kippur. Tomorrow morning we’ll read about the ritual the High Priest enacted on Yom Kippur day in ancient times at the Temple in Jerusalem. One of the crucial moments of that ritual was the designation of a scapegoat, and once that goat was identified, the sins of the people were transferred onto it, and it was sent away into the wilderness. Once the goat was banished, it was as if the sins of the Israelites were instantaneously taken away, never to return.
That was essentially the function that our imaginary friend Ailat was playing in our home. The children took whatever sin they had committed, whatever wrong they had done, and they conveniently placed it on Ailat’s shoulders. And once you did that, like the scapegoat, Ailat was gone. After all, you couldn’t find her to punish her, because she didn’t really exist in the first place.
The truth is, we don’t even need an imaginary friend to blame our faults and failings on. If you are a parent you are certainly familiar with the following scenario. You are driving somewhere, a long trip, and your children are in the backseat. Things begin to get a bit unruly back there, and when you turn around to calm things down, the response is inevitably, ‘he did it first’ or ‘she started it!’ So forget about the imaginary friend – we are just as happy to blame our mistakes and wrongdoings on another person, who does exist! Even if that person is our sibling! Maybe especially if that person is our sibling!
The thing about it is it doesn’t stop with that back seat bickering we are all so familiar with. The blame game gets more complicated and sophisticated as we get older, but it continues, and we never stop looking for scapegoats. It might be the student in high school who blames her English teacher because of the bad grade she got on her paper. Maybe it is the worker who feels he is being held back by his boss, and if only he had a different supervisor, he would be VP by now. And I’ve had more than one conversation with parents of students in our Hebrew school who have blamed our teachers and our bar/bat mitzvah program for the fact that their child didn’t do as much as they hoped the morning of their special day. The blame game is played all the time in the business world. When the VW diesel admissions scandal first broke the higher ups initially blamed it on the engineers who changed the software. Or what about politics? Politicians play the blame game as well as anyone, maybe better, blaming the media, or each other, or embracing bizarre conspiracy theories as a way of explaining why something went wrong.
What folks often don’t consider is that, as Cassius so wisely said to Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julies Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves…” The fault is in ourselves. You see it might be the high school student didn’t put the time in that she needed to do well on her paper. Maybe the worker who thinks his boss is holding him back forgets that he shows up 10 minutes late every day, or the bat mitzvah girl’s parents don’t realize they never asked their daughter to practice at home. Wouldn’t it be refreshing one day to see a politician step up to a podium and say ‘this is on me?’ But it is so much easier to blame someone, or something, else, than it is to look in the mirror and see the fault in ourselves.
Of course this is a natural human tendency. No one likes to get caught doing something they know they are not supposed to be doing, and no one likes to be confronted with their mistakes, their faults, and their frailties. The Torah makes this clear with the story of the very first humans, Adam and Eve. You’ll remember for sure that they committed a sin – what was it? They ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, a tree from which God had specifically told them not to eat.
But what you may not remember is the conversation between God, Adam, and Eve after the critical mistake had been made. It goes something like this: God asks Adam, “Did you eat of the fruit of the tree?” Adam responds: “Eve made me do it! She gave me the fruit, and I ate it!” God then turns to Eve, and says “What have you done?” Eve quickly responds, “It is not my fault, the snake tricked me!” The Torah seems to be telling us that our tendency to blame others for our problems and mistakes is as old as humanity itself.
Now of course sometimes there are other factors that cause us to fail, despite our best efforts. Both nature and nurture do play a role in who we are and what we can achieve. A rough path early in life can create huge obstacles that a young person might struggle to overcome. Our genetic makeup can work against us, confronting us with physical and emotional challenges that others don’t face. And there are people out there who can hold us back, teachers who genuinely don’t like us, or a boss who is jealous of our talent and sets us up to fail.
But I worry that we’ve become too comfortable, even too eager, to find someone or something else to blame for our own troubles. Judaism insists that we have free will, and that we can use that gift wisely or poorly. When we use it wisely, when we choose well, we’ll tend to do better, to be better, and to be blessed more often and more deeply in our lives. It is true, we don’t control everything! But some things we certainly do control. Most importantly of all, how we react to the difficult circumstances that life tends to put in our way. In an age when we commonly flee from responsibility, Yom Kippur comes along and reminds us that we should actually embrace it.
I think that is why the tradition asks us to recite the Al Cheit list so many times in the next 24 hours. In a traditional service, that list of sins is recited twice tonight, twice tomorrow morning during Shaharit, twice more during musaf, and just to top it all off two more times during the minhah service. Eight times!! Why all the repetition? Have we really sinned that much in the year that has just ended?
I think that almost constant repetition of the Al Cheit list is intended to remind us of two things. The first is that we often have a hard time admitting we were wrong. And the second thing is, if we do admit we’ve made a mistake, we tend to blame it on someone else. Just like Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the snake. And so we say, again and again, Al Cheit she’chatanu – On the sin that we sinned. That reminds us, you see, that we have done things that are wrong. It also reminds we might have chosen to do otherwise, so the blame, as Cassius said to Brutus, is in ourselves.
Let me just for one moment return to my children’s imaginary friend. Anyone happen to remember her name? Ailat. Spelled? AILAT. I am sure you all know the trick of holding letters up to a mirror. What happens? The letters appear in the mirror in reverse order. So if you were to take Ailat, write it on a piece of paper, and hold it up to the mirror, you would have T A L I A – which spells? Talia. The name of our oldest child. She was quite surprised when she one day realized her imaginary friend was a reflection of herself.
Yom Kippur reminds us of how important it is to look honestly into that mirror. To see who we truly are, what mistakes we have made, and to let go of our scapegoats. We don’t do this to feel shame or sadness. We do it instead to embrace both responsibility and possibility. Responsibility for what we have done, and the possibility that we can make amends and do better in a new year.
That is the message of this sacred day. May we take it to heart tonight, and enter this new year with confidence and faith.