Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, began last night at sundown. It marks the commencement of the Days of Awe in the Jewish calendar, a ten-day period of study, self-examination and repentance, ending next week with the holiest day in the Jewish Year, Yom Kippur–the Day of Atonement.
In a holiday filled with beautiful rituals, one of the most mysterious and powerful for me is that of the scapegoat.
On Yom Kippur in ancient Israel, the high priest put his hands on the head of a young goat and confessed over it the sins of all of the people. The goat, burdened by the communal wrongdoings, was led away to wander in the wilderness, never to return to the tribe. The carrier of sins was an “escape goat”, shortened in English to scapegoat.
The scapegoat, along with other rituals for repentance during the Days of Awe, allowed everyone to be cleansed of impurity, to start fresh in the new year. But the holiday teaches that we cannot be cleansed of our misdeeds through mere substitution of the goat for ourselves. Only after self-examination, a sincere desire to be forgiven, and the resolve to change our ways, can we atone for our failures and shortcomings.
Scapegoats seem to serve a deep human need, for we see them all over the world in every era. In our modern, literal world, the scapegoat signifies an unfair cruelty, and no longer offers a sense of relief and forgiveness. Nevertheless, we continue to find people, nations, and cultures to blame for our own failings.
Bainbridge Island has its share of scapegoats–people who are vilified far out of proportion to their actual errors and misjudgments. In my view, this year’s very public hounding of two city leaders out of their jobs and into the “wilderness” was certainly scapegoating. We’ve done it many times before–even our change of government vote arose after the scapegoating of our former mayor for the sins of both the Bainbridge “establishment” and those who didn’t raise our voices against unwise financial management (i.e. all of us) until almost too late.
One of the defining traits—some might say failures—of our community is the intensity of our opinions. We’re educated and we’re opinionated, and we find it hard to compromise or recognize that the other guy might have a point. A friend of mine who has lived here since the 70′s says the fights over the island’s future were just as intense then as they are now—the difference is that there are more of us now, and with the Internet, we have more ways to communicate our outrage and passion.
At the same time, we tend to disengage from local government unless we have a personal stake in a particular issue. Even the most diehard political junkies usually burn out on angst-laden local politics, and activists often disappear after their issues are resolved.
A single city manager or department head cannot be blamed for the consequences of decades of community mood swings. Good and accountable government does not come into being without sustained efforts of citizens who are patient with each other and with the messy process that democracy is.
We all find it easier to spot others’ faults than admit our own shortcomings. In the spirit of the holiday, I plan to spend some time over the next week and a half reflecting on how my failures have been visited on the heads of this year’s scapegoats. These are the questions I’ll be asking myself about my political and public behavior, based on the wrongdoings we projected onto them. Others may have different questions to ask that face in the mirror.
*Do I play favorites? Do I have a double standard, requiring perfection of those with whom I don’t agree, and turning a blind eye to the lapses in my own camp?
*Do I tell the truth? Do I learn the facts to the best of my ability and disclose them, even when it hurts my side of the argument? Do I indulge in hyperbole? Do I mislead by omission?
*Do I quickly admit mistakes and correct them?
*Am I compassionate to those in our midst who are disabled by physical or mental illness, or social isolation, or age, or emotional problems? Do I offer a helping hand?
*Do I embody good leadership qualities—working hard and effectively, listening to others, clearly expressing my own ideas, treating people with sincere respect, acting with integrity, taking responsibility for my actions, keeping my word, being open to new ideas, making hard decisions even when I know people will criticize me?
*When I offer criticism, am I genuinely trying to make things better, or do I just want to be right?
*Do I know the value of holding my tongue? Do I speak up when I should speak up and zip it when I can’t add anything to the discussion?
*Do I hold grudges? Do I practice forgiveness?
*When I call a public figure to account, am I seeking a solution, or am I simply snarky and unkind?
*Do I dehumanize my adversaries by labeling them—nuts, teabaggers, old guard, silverbacks, a**holes, the establishment, developers, idiots?
*Do I worry about the speck in my neighbor’s eye and ignore the log in my own?
This is going to take more than ten days….
L’shana Tova! Happy New Year.