The Sacred Goat and the Holy Coin: Uniquely You
Updated: Sep 13, 2022
Below is the first of four sermons I delivered at Manchester Reform Synagogue over the Yom Tovim. Since writing this I have seen this article which may also be helpful in processing the time which we are in - https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/08/11/pandemic-anxiety-psychology-delta/
All sources can be found on this Sefaria source sheet - www.sefaria.org/sheets/345134
Please only reproduce the work on this blog with proper attribution or the permission of the author.
I want to invite you to travel with me to the beginning of the 19th century. There we will find the Kotzker Rebbe. We will find him during the last two decades of his life living in seclusion. So the story goes, as told by Rabbi Harold Schulweis, this one enigmatic and troubled righteous man was now living alone struggling with depression.
One day he received a visit from his friends – ‘peace be with you, Rabbi’ – his friend greeted him. The Kotzker Rebbe responded by saying ‘don’t you recognise me?’ I am the “sacred goat”.’
Why a sacred goat, you may well ask?!
The Kotzker told the tale: "Once an old Jew lost his snuff box made of the horn of a goat. 'I've lost my snuff box made of horn,' he wailed.
Walking later that day the old Jew came upon a sacred goat that was pacing the earth and the tips of his black horns touched the stars.
When the goat heard the old Jew lamenting, he leaned down to him and said, 'Cut a piece from my horns - whatever you need to make a new snuff box.' The old Jew did this, made a new snuffbox and filled it with tobacco. When he returned to the House of Study, he offered everyone a pinch of tobacco. Everyone was awed by the scent: 'What wonderful tobacco! It must be because of the box. Where did you get it?' And the old man told them about the sacred goat. Then one after the other, they went out onto the street and looked for the sacred goat.
The sacred goat was pacing the earth and the tips of his black horns touched the stars. One after the other they went up to him and begged permission to cut off a bit of his horns. And time after time the sacred goat leaned down to grant the request. Box after box was made, and the fame of the boxes spread far and wide.
Now the sacred goat still paces the earth - but he has no horns.”
The story told by the Kotzker Rebbe gifts us an insight into his psyche, sat there in seclusion. He is exhausted. He, like the sacred goat, has given too much of himself over his years. In giving so much to others and the world around him he was left with nothing.
Let’s now take a step back from the 19th century and arrive back today in our sanctuary with your feet planted here on Jackson’s Row or on your living room floor in your slippers. Let’s gently, during this time of rest and seclusion over these High Holy Days, look back over this past year.
I am sure that many of us have felt our reserve, our sacred horns, our resilience being lessened over time. Can you remember the times over the past year when you lent down and gave part of yourself away or when part of you was taken away?
Maybe it was during the second lockdown when the reality of this pandemic took hold in your body. Maybe it was once again when you were juggling work and home-schooling, caring for yourself and your elderly parents, waiting for months to hug loved ones or renew your favourite hobbies or travels. Maybe part of you was lost when you saw the inequality of access to vaccines across the globe, when you stayed up watching the storming of Congress, when you saw the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, when you suffered a bereavement of someone close to you, when you read the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or when you heard about the conviction for the murderer of George Floyd...
In all of these moments we feel as if we are getting smaller and smaller. Like the Kotzker Rebbe, we sit here still probably unable to process the trauma of living through a pandemic. Yet we know how affected we are – in body and spirit. We may feel less resilient, weakened, smaller, more emotional, more fearful - particularly as our usual ways of living life, connecting to ourselves and others were either taken away from us or severely restricted. And, whilst we stand in a freer world today, we are still living with much uncertainty and underlying fear.
There has never been a more crucial time to be gentle with ourselves and to connect with our needs in order for us to build up our resilience and to avoid the fate of the sacred goat or the Kotzker Rebbe.
And I am sure that you have found and have continued to find moments of joy and positivity amongst these times of challenge.
To aid us with our quest of self-compassion, as we stand here on the eve of the year 5782, over the sermons for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are going to return to one timeless teaching and take one section of it for each sermon. The famous saying is by the first century sage Hillel. You may recognise the saying:
Hillel used to say: If I am not for me, who will be for me?
And when I am for myself alone, what am I?
And if not now, then when?
This Erev Rosh Hashanah we focus on the first part of this phrase – If I am not for me, who will be for me? Our primary responsibility is for ourself, in the first instance. This is not to say that we don’t care for others or take action to heal our world – but the first step is to nurture ourselves as otherwise we have nothing left to give.
Perhaps another ancient Jewish story will help us to unpack this even more. Jewish teaching is very clear that we as human beings are innately good. We do not have the idea of Original Sin and do not believe that we are fundamentally sinners in need of healing. So the creation story goes – God looked back at the human being he created, and the animals, and ‘found it very good.’ We may follow our inclination to evil and temptation but ultimately we are good. And that is, according to Jewish teaching, because we are created in the image of divinity.
However you understand divinity, Judaism teaches that we are each uniquely holy, containing elements of divinity making us worthy of love and much more.
A teaching in the Mishnah, an early rabbinic text, illuminates this point by giving the following analogy:
When a person stamps several coins with one seal, they are all similar to each other. But the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, stamped all people with the seal of Adam, the first person [as all of them are Adam’s offspring] and not one of them is similar to another.
Therefore, [since all of humanity descends from one person] each and every person is obligated to say: The world was created for me [as one person can be the source of all humanity.]
‘The world was created for me’. What a powerful line. We are literally cast in the image of divinity, stamped with a holy seal. Of course, this should not lead to arrogance and a life of selfish deeds but should encourage us to practice self-compassion and to prioritise our needs.
For more than anything, Rosh Hashanah and these days of reflection, teshuvah – repentance and returning – are for us to take responsibility for ourselves – both the light and the dark corners of our existence.
To avoid the fate of the sacred goat, to live life knowing we are crafted in the image of divinity and that the world was created for each one of us – we take care of ourselves. In the words of the author and teacher, Marianne Williamson:
We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world….We are all meant to shine, as children do….and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
Like the Kotzker Rebbe you may have moments of feeling worthless and depressed but know through these teachings and indeed the legacy of the Kotzker himself, that you are worthy of love and that there are opportunities for joy, compassion and gratitude before us always.
Ken Yehi Ratzon – may this be God’s will – amen.
 https://www.vbs.org/worship/meet-our-clergy/rabbi-harold-schulweis/sermons/rabbi-sacred-goat  Pirke Avot 1:14  Genesis 1:31  Genesis 1:27  Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, translation and wording from Sefaria.  Peter Block, p.57 Community: The Structure of Belonging  Marianne Williamson in ‘A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracle”