At the heart of Yom Kippur are two goats. The Torah portion describes how the goats would be stood in front of the High Priest, the sins of Israel would be confessed over them and lots would be drawn deciding which would end up being sent out into the wilderness and cast over a cliff, and which would be sacrificed on the altar. Even after the sacrifices ceased, an elaborate description of this particular service came to form the heart of the Yom Kippur Mussaf prayer.
In a classic lecture, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik distinguished between two forms of teshuvah.
In the first, a person wishing to make a change for the better makes a clean break with their past. No longer are they to be identified with the person they used to be.
In the second version however, the would-be penitent doesn’t cut themselves off from their past, rather they seek to elevate it. Even as the past is regretted, they recognise that same past contains within it experiences and knowledge which will propel them forward. Where the former approach expunges the past, the latter elevates it.
As moderns, it is a commonplace that sacrifices don’t speak to us. And yet perhaps writing them off deprives us of a profound message. Could it be that the service of the two goats corresponds exactly to Rabbi Soloveitchik’s distinction?
That the two goats serve as a form of external choreography for the mysterious process of teshuvah that takes place within us — as we search our pasts there is that which we seek to cast out to the wilderness, never to be seen again, and there is that which we hope to raise up to God.