Yom Kippur: Epigenetics, Scapegoating, and Collective Atonement
My friend buried her face in her hands as she said to me, “I don’t know why this is coming up; I thought I had dealt with all my family stuff. But I still feel this heavy weight of shame about my German ancestry. My father was a young boy in Germany during World War II, and it sometimes seems like I carry some of that guilt within me.”
I immediately felt a resonance with her experience. As a college student in Munich, I slowly became aware that many of my German friends seemed somehow to carry something heavier emotionally and psychologically than others. Through the course of many intimate conversations, some of them shared with me a profound feeling of guilt they had connected with the atrocities committed (or ignored) by their ancestors.
Their stories were not at all foreign or surprising to me, because for as long as I could remember I had also felt as though I had been carrying heavy burdens handed down to me through bloodlines. Many of my ancestors were born and raised in the Southeastern United States; many of them I know to have been racist, some even members of the Ku Klux Klan. While I am not aware of any specific acts committed by any of my relations, I have always felt quite certain that there were great cruelties. And at times, it feels as though my very flesh is stained with those cruelties.
Is this true? Are the sins of my forefathers visited upon me?
The Hebrew Scriptures contain at least four references to God “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:7)
And I am beginning to believe that these may be understood quite literally, not literally as in a vengeful god punishing descendants for acts committed by their ancestors.
Nope, even more literal than that; literal on a biological level.
Epigenetics is the study of changes in gene expression created by causes other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence. And what is being learned is that our experiences throughout our lives change every part of our physiological being. (Bruce Lipton’s groundbreaking Biology of Belief is a wonderful introduction to this material).
So what does all that have to do with the “sins of the father”?
Because studies now indicate that we pass on to our children these gene changes that have occurred during our lifetimes. Our environment shapes who we are, not just emotionally or psychologically, but physically; and that, in turn, dictates who our children will be born to be. Generations after us will feel the effects of the circumstances in which we lived, unless their experiences and environments are so different as to change their genes.
Is this why my German friends and I carry those heavy burdens?
And, if so, doesn’t the science also indicate that we can change, at a cellular level, so that we do not pass those burdens along to our children?
I believe it does.
I also believe that ancient people had some notion of the necessity of eliminating impurities from their midst. They certainly felt that the misdeeds of an individual could affect the entire village and thus often needed to be removed from that community quite physically.
The ancient Greek word miasma refers to a spiritual stain that has polluted not just the individual involved in creating that stain but the group of people surrounding him or her. And, in extreme cases, when a severe drought or other form of natural disaster was believed to be the result of that type of pollution, the miasma had to be removed; so an individual, usually a criminal, was chosen to be the remover of that stain. He was imbued with the miasma and banished into the wilderness.
The ancient Hebrews had a similar ritual used to carry away the sins of the community, and this was enacted each year on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. We learn of this in Leviticus, when we read that Aaron dedicated two goats, one “for God,” the other “for Azazel.” The horns of the latter were tied with red fabric, to symbolize the people’s sins, and the animal was driven out into the desert, carrying those sins away from the community.
A modern version of this ritual uses an electronic scapegoat instead of a living animal, but the offer is the same: being cleansed of one’s sins by passing them along to another. (see http://www.escgoat.com/#home)
Most scholars interpret these rituals as being symbolic, that the person or the goat was imbued with the sins symbolically. I have spent enough time around shamans (and people who are shaman-ish) to lead me to believe that at some point the transfer of the sins was thought to be quite physical and energetic, as well as symbolic.
What’s the connection between this ritual and Yom Kippur? Why, when people have spent the past ten days (and much of the preceding month) working to cleanse themselves of their misdeeds, to apologize, make amends, and forgive one another in very personal and interpersonal ways -- why, then, is such a communal ritual significant?
For this, let’s turn to a story about a fish.
The story of Jonah is read on this day, toward the end of hours of fasting and praying. These four chapters contain so many significant passages, each pertinent to the Days of Awe and to Yom Kippur. What I find fascinatingly relevant here is that Jonah himself is offered as a scapegoat. Having run away from God’s request of him and hidden upon a ship, Jonah encounters a massive sea storm. While all the others onboard the vessel are praying for the storm to abate (to their various gods; Jonah was the only Hebrew amongst them), Jonah falls asleep below deck. This not so subtle reference to his lack of consciousness in the moment tells us quite a bit about Jonah.
Pulling him up on deck, the others ask the questions foremost on everyone’s minds, “Who did something awful to cause this storm? What pollution are we carrying that needs to be purged in order for the waters to calm?” They draw lots to find the answer, and Jonah is that answer. “Who are you? What is your job? Where are you from?” come the inquiries, as the men attempt to uncover the miasma he carries. He tells them, “I am a Hebrew,” and admits to running away from his God. Feeling the weight of his infraction, he offers himself to be used as a scapegoat, and the others eventually throw him overboard. He is swallowed by an enormous fish (or perhaps a sea serpent), in whose belly he remains for three days before being dispatched up and onto dry land; a few more adventures ensue for our friend Jonah, but by now he has already served in his role of miasma-bearer.
As soon as he is thrown out of the boat, the seas become calm. The text makes it clear that Jonah is the one who has erred here. And his sin affects not just him, his family of origin, or his community; it affects all those around him in the moment.
So what wisdom is offered here for us contemporary contemplative types, who may not relish sending a friend into the deep blue sea or a goat into the desert in order to find redemption, in order to atone?
The message for me is that I have the choice to become a conscious scapegoat myself.
Here’s what I know for sure (because the newer science proves it to me and, much more importantly, this is my experience): we are all connected. This idea of pollution is so significant, because it actually is true. The land we share, the air we breathe, everything binds us to one another. So in a very real sense, everything someone in my family or my community does has the power to affect me. And since we are growing ever more connected with one another through all sorts of global communities and cyber means, the ripples created by our words and actions are growing ever larger.
And everything I do has the power to affect all others.
In fact, in a world such as ours, where over 7 billion people are quickly coming to inhabit one big global neighborhood, perhaps I have the capacity to help cleanse pieces of pollution on many levels -- the physical and the metaphysical.
There are lots of ways to do this; each of them likely as good as the next. The fundamental component of all of them is awareness, taking responsibility for making change in our own lives and then sharing that change with all beings.
For years, I have been doing tonglen, a Tibetan practice whose name means “taking and giving” or “sending and receiving”. Essentially, the practice involves taking onto ourselves the suffering of others and offering them peace, love, or some other healing flow.
This taking in of others’ suffering has always felt to me like becoming the scapegoat, like offering to inhale those places where mistakes have been made, where there is pain and separation, and to exhale cleansing and healing. It feels, in fact, like atonement.
For atonement is not merely separate individuals cleaning up their mistakes. It is, as the word itself makes clear, reaching a place where we are “at one” -- with our true nature, with one another, with all beings, and with God.
Actually, everything about Yom Kippur moves the personal into the communal, perhaps even the universal and transpersonal.
On this day, the holiest day of the year, all sins are confessed in the plural. We are no longer making peace with our own individual mistakes, but we are joining collectively to seek redemption as a group.
We are given the blessed opportunity to experience oneness and to walk through those gates as one together.