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Torah Commentary
Acharei Mot (May 7, 2016)

Stephanie Crawley,
Rabbinic Intern

In a classic episode of “The West Wing,”
the press secretary, C.J. Craig, arrives at her office to find two turkeys inside. She is told that she must choose the most photogenic of the pair to receive the annual Thanksgiving “presidential turkey pardon.” Burdened by this responsibility, she begs the President to pardon both turkeys: “The more photo-friendly of two gets a full Presidential pardon and a full life at a children’s zoo, and the runner up gets eaten?!” The President asserts that he has no actual power to pardon the second turkey and instead uses his Constitutional powers to draft it into military service —
thereby “saving” its life.

However ridiculous this scenario may seem, it is quite similar to a ceremony described in Acharei Mot. As part of Yom Kippur’s ancient atonement process, Aaron — the High Priest — is instructed to bring two live, male goats to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. The two goats were to be identical in every way — equal in appearance, height and monetary worth — and were to be bought at the same time.(1) Based on a random lottery selection process, one goat was to be sacrificed to God and the other released into the wilderness alive. The goat that was designated for sacrifice was offered as a purgation, in order to ritually purify the sacrificial altar. The second goat was drafted for a different service, that of expiation.

This second goat, seemingly spared from the fate of immediate death, received a different, yet equally weighty burden: He was to become the symbolic carrier of all of the sins of the Israelites. The Torah describes the expiatory process:

Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness...Thus the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region. (Leviticus 16:21-22)

It is here, in Leviticus, that we find the origin of the idea of a scapegoat. Of these two virtually identical goats, one was randomly selected to take on the sins of all of the people, to do the work of atonement for the rest of the community. It seems to be a quick fix. Rather than doing the hard work of t’shuvah — repentance — the people merely employ a scapegoat (plus a little fasting and a day off of work) to cleanse themselves of their sins. It is notable that, unlike the majority of atonement and purification rituals in the Torah, this ritual does not require any altar-based sacrifice. However, this public confession and assignment of sins to the goat is only the first step. As a public acknowledgement that each person has transgressed, it affirms that there is not a single person whose sins are not placed on the head of the goat. Only then, once each person accepts his or her personal contributions to the community’s sins, can he or she participate in the process of t’shuvah.

This is as true for the ancient Israelites as it is for us. On Yom Kippur, we recite Ashamnu, a list of communal transgressions. Many in our own community also have participated in a modern atonement ritual, using eScapegoat, an app that lets you admit mistakes and “place” them onto a virtual scapegoat. Just like the ancient act, both Ashamnu and eScapegoat include a shared acknowledgement of our errors and responsibilities. These practices allow us to see beyond ourselves, aiding in our repentance.

And this idea extends beyond Yom Kippur and the season of Elul. Just days ago, at Passover seders around the country, people recited together both the plagues of the Exodus and contemporary plagues that are damaging our world and those in it. During this Z’man Heruteinu — the season of our freedom — we are reminded that all of Israel collectively was redeemed from Egypt, not only specific individuals. It is up to us to make sure that each of us is using our freedom to bring about a freer and more just world, rather than contributing to the things that plague it. At Passover, like Yom Kippur, we remind ourselves that we are part of a larger whole and that we are not free to desist from the task of caring for the world.

(1) Mishnah Yoma 6:1

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