Let it go


What do Yom Kippur and Zen monks have in common? In this episode, Rabbi Josh Feigelson explores the profound lesson of letting go, drawing from a classic Zen tale and the Yom Kippur scapegoat ritual to illustrate how Judaism teaches the importance of releasing burdens.

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There’s a classic Zen story about two monks who travel together. (I first read this story in a children’s book by Jon Muth, and I’m using his language here.) 

So picture this. It’s pouring rain. The monks arrive at a town where they encounter a wealthy young woman who is waiting to step out of her sedan chair.

(Photo: Shutterstock)

The woman is accompanied by several attendants. The rains had made deep puddles and she couldn’t step across without spoiling her silken robes. And her attendants couldn’t help her across, because they were holding packages for her, and couldn’t put them down, they’d get soaked.

She stood there, looking cross and impatient, and scolding her staff.

The younger monk noticed the woman, said nothing and walked by. The older monk quickly picked her up and put her on his back, transported her across the water, and put her down on the other side.

Even after they crossed, she didn’t thank him, she just shoved him out of the way and departed. As they continued on their way, the young monk was brooding and preoccupied.

After several hours, unable to hold his silence, he spoke out. “That woman back there was very selfish and rude, but you picked her up on your back and carried her! Then she didn’t even thank you!”

And what did the older monk respond? It was pretty incredible. “I set the woman down hours ago,” he replied. “Why are you still carrying her?”

Why are you still carrying her? It’s a fantastic question, and it teaches the lesson of the story: We can choose what to hold onto and what to let go of.

The younger monk, who hadn’t even carried the young woman, had chosen to carry his anger and resentment; the older monk, who had actually carried her, not only put her down, but let go of any ill will he had. Zen master achievement unlocked.

I think this question, what we’re carrying, what we’re holding onto, is so basic and important. And it’s not only the Zen tradition that teaches it — it’s a Jewish question too.

In fact, it’s kind of all over the place. The very first teaching in the Talmud about Shabbat is a teaching about carrying things.

Another famous section of the Talmud deals with what happens when two people are holding onto something and both of them claim it’s theirs.

The Torah teaches us to be on the lookout for lost objects — and to pick them up so that we can return them.

But one of the places that Jewish tradition has the most to say about picking things up and carrying them — not just physical carrying, but spiritual carrying — is at Yom Kippur, which is at the center of the Torah portion called Acharei-Mot.

The Torah describes this elaborate ritual that the High Priest would perform on Yom Kippur. It honestly sounds a little foreign to us today, but it involved a bunch of sacrifices, several wardrobe changes, and washing himself repeatedly.

But the climax of the ritual was when he would take a goat, lay his hands on it and, in the words of the Torah, confess all the sins of the children of Israel — he would put them, so to speak, onto the goat. And then, again Torah talking here, the goat would “carry off their sins” into the wilderness.

This has long been acknowledged as one of the weirder rituals of the ancient Israelites. Fun fact: It’s actually the origin of the word scapegoat.

And what makes it weird is the same thing that makes a scapegoat weird: Like, really, we believe that we can just heap all the bad stuff onto this one little goat — this goat that didn’t do anything other than have the bad fortune to show up for work that day? What is this ritual really about? 

One way I sometimes understand it has to do with that Zen story I started with. Does the goat literally take on all the sins of the Israelites?

No. It’s a symbol. And what it symbolizes is something really basic: We can let go. We don’t have to hold onto our mistakes.

We don’t have to keep holding tight to our resentment or our anger, to the ways we’ve missed the mark. Like the Zen master, we can put them down. That’s what I think the High Priest is really teaching us in this ritual with the goat: We can soften our grip; we can let go.

Of course, this is important work to do in the days and weeks leading up to Yom Kippur. But we read this Torah portion in the spring, right around Passover. And maybe there’s a lesson in that too: We don’t have to wait until Yom Kippur to practice letting go. We can do it all the time. We can do it now.

So here’s a meditation practice you can try. 

Assume a meditation posture — dignified, allowing air to flow. 

Soften your gaze or close your eyes. 

Let yourself arrive in the moment. 

Let your body relax. 

Feel yourself supported and grounded. 

Now, if it’s comfortable for you, let your awareness center in your breath. You might choose to notice the rising and falling of your belly as you breathe.

See if you can notice any sensation of something you’re holding onto. It could be in the body–tightness in the shoulders, around the eyes, in the jaw. It could be in the abdomen or somewhere else. See if you can bring some softness, some relaxation, and let go a bit.

And as we sit a little longer, you might bring your attention some less physical ways you’re clinging or holding on. 

To a memory. 

To an emotion. 

To something else. 

Try to sense the quality of that holding on. 

And see how it might feel to loosen your grip a little — to hold it a little less tightly, to let go a little, to put it down. 

You might sense a bit more expansiveness, a little more room to breathe, a little reduction in anxiety. 

This practice of letting go, of not carrying so much — it’s available to you anytime. You don’t have to wait for Yom Kippur. You can access it in this moment — right here and now. 

Feel welcome to continue this practice as long as you like. When you’re ready, open your eyes if they’ve been closed. Notice how you feel. Hopefully a bit lighter because you’ve put down a bit of that weight you’ve been carrying. 

Blessings for the journey. Know that I’m on it with you.

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