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Countering The Blame Game

Torah Talk on Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5780

This week we read the double Torah portions of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, located near the mid-point of the Book of Leviticus, Vayikra. While Kedoshim, with its Holiness Code rising to the great statement “love your neighbor as you love yourself” is a highlight of the entire Torah, Acharei Mot has much to teach, too.

Leviticus is centered on the question of how we create holiness in our lives, and Acharei Mot addresses the issue in a variety of ways. In particular, it includes all the Biblical rituals related to the great and powerful Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, holiest day of the entire year for our ancestors, as it remains for us. We are commanded to afflict our souls on that day, ta’anu et nafshoteichem. The rites described in Acharei Mot are quite detailed and formed the basis for the ways in which our ancestors observed the Day of Atonement throughout the period when the Temple stood in Jerusalem. The High Priest purified himself completely, then offered sacrifices of atonement for himself, his family and his people. He would then purify the holiest parts of the shrine of the Temple and bring forward a goat as an atonement offering.

The goat is one of the peculiarities of this ritual sequence. Actually, two goats are brought out: one, the scapegoat—this portion is the origin of that concept and that term—is given the burden of symbolically carrying the sins of the people out into the wilderness. The second is sacrificed as an atonement offering on the altar. Ultimately, after a day of self-denial and repentance, ki vayom hazeh y’chapeir aleichem l’taheir etchem b’chol chatoteichem—on that day atonement shall be made for you to purify you from all your sins. Through this process we are restored to holiness.

It is notable that our ancestors recognized that our human societies, and even organizations, need to be able to transfer our sins to another entity, literally a scapegoat, in order to feel that order, and holiness, are restored. That is, when things go wrong we need to free ourselves from guilt by putting our hands on someone else and dumping our tzoris onto him or her. This has been the way of the world forever. What is notable in ancient Israelite society is that the fall guy is actually just a goat, not a person, and that the chosen dupe is simply sent out into the wilderness and not slaughtered. It is catharsis without real injury, a lesson we still haven’t really learned.

We live in a society today in which blame and shame seem to be the two most powerful verbs at work, and in which scapegoats are sought for every failure at every level of society, business, religion and government, even for every relationship failure. And blame and shame are then wildly publicized in every way. The Torah, which invented the concept, teaches a very different lesson: accept the moral failure, reform any problematic conduct, but pass on the guilt to a non-verbal being, and set it free. Then you can return to live a good, and holy, life.

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