Under (Peer) Pressure

As I write this (Friday night) many Jews the world over are rolling up their machtzelet and taking it with them to a wide open space where they can enjoy the company of others.

The machtzelet, as my friend Liza explains, is an all-purpose large, flat straw mat, like a large picnic blanket but much sturdier, which is very practical. It is taken to beach, camping, picnics, and so on.

But Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement, the feast being celebrated this evening and tomorrow, is not about picnics. Neither is it – solely – about the Judas Goat, which many people who are not Jewish usually associate with this important day.

It falls on the eve of the tenth day of Tishrei, and it is when one of the fasts of Judaism is practiced. It will end tomorrow, Shabbat evening, at nightfall, with the blowing of the Tekia Gedolah, a long blast of the Shofar.

This is the holiest day of the year. Just as lapsed Catholics are wont to go to the procession of Our Lady of Sorrows, so do non-practicing Jews tend to observe Yom Kippur, to some extent, even if it’s only to go to shul (the synagogue).

Incidentally, there are other restrictions that obtain in Yom Kippur – washing, bathing, and the use of toiletries and cosmetics is prohibited, and sex is not allowed. So is the wearing of leather footwear.

Of course, there are exceptions to these rules, when it comes to children, women who have given birth, the frail, the ill, and the elderly.

It is traditional, but not obligatory, to wear white on this day, to remember that sins shall be made ‘as white as snow’. The men could wear white kippahs.

In ancient times, the ritual known as that of the Two Goats was enacted each year before the High priest. The animals were led before the High Priest. He randomly assigned one, by lots, “to Hashem” and the other “to Azazel” which was not, as most people assume the personal name of a devil, but that a steep cliff in a barren desert.

God’s goat was ritually sacrificed in the Temple as the Korban Chatat. The second animal, symbolically loaded with the sins of the congregation, would be brusquely shunted off the cliff.

Animal activists, of course, would protest that each killing is inhumane; but then, so is swatting an annoying fly.

However, as in all Jewish ceremonies, the meaning of the actions lies way deeper than their physical manifestations. And for non-Jews, there is a lesson to be drawn from the different fates of the goats. The goats did not get to choose how each of them was to be sacrificed.

We, as sentient beings, have the possibility of choosing whether our lives will be useful, or vapid. It is not accidental that the story of the Prophet Jonah is read and mediated upon, on this day, since this is a festival geared towards Soul-searching and repentance.

This week, I had a serious discussion about peer pressure, of all places, by the pool at a hotel.

A woman who was there for a weekend break told me that she had treated her daughter to the holiday because she had broken off a relationship with a married man. I expected the daughter to look like a femme fatale. Yet when the woman discreetly pointed her out to me, I could see that she was a fairly normal-looking teenager, who, according to the woman, had done it “because all her friends were doing it”.

Alas, too many of us use “friends who lead us astray” as the ultimate umbrella excuse.

What we fail to realise is that this argument is flawed twice over. “Bad” makes a noise in the news – and “good” rarely does unless reports and journalists go after it intentionally. So a person is more likely to be awed and influenced by the negative actions of a member of his clique, than fight them.

What could be worse is that we ignore the fact that “peer pressure” also has a positive aspect. If you nag your friends to do “something good” with you – help out at a residential home, or do other voluntary work or donate blood, to give two examples, it is also peer pressure that you are practicing.

In effect, each one of us gets to choose which goat we will be, while leaving the religious aspect out of it. Only then will we be able to shake out our machtzelet and enjoy life’s picnic.

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