The vast majority of the Paresha Acharei Moth deals with atoning for despoliation of the holy of holies

, the tent of meeting, and the altar - in fact, only at verse 20 does the focus shift to the expiation of the sins of the Israelites. This is to occur by the laying of their “iniquities and sins” on the head of the goat. The description of this ritual is center stage for only 2 verses – but substantially epitomizes Yom Kippur morning for many, if not all of us. Collectively the relevant verses require the procurement from the congregation of two he-goats of identical age, size, coloring and value, and lots are then cast to identify one that will be sacrificed as a sin-offering to God, and one that will be sent forth to “Azazel” - a place or name that remains mystical and contentious – sent forth bearing on its head the sins and transgressions of the congregation of Israel (minus, it should be noted, those of the priesthood!), laid there by Aaron the Cohen Hagadol Let me set the historical time frame – the ritual described probably had its origins in the post- Exodus time of wandering in the wilderness of the desert but is interpreted over the subsequent time of the Temple in the land of the Israelites, and down through the ages – in keeping with the admonition that “the Sabbath of Sabbaths will be an everlasting statute unto you to make atonement for the children of Israel because of all their sins, once in the year”. This vast time span provides an interesting framework for addressing the concept of “the scapegoat”, and the evolution of the phenomenon of scapegoating. Thomas Cahill, author of “The Gifts of the Jews”, identifies as our first gift, that the Jews were the first ancient society to embrace individual responsibility – to break out of the vision of the “inevitability of the wheel of nature “ – that there is predestination relevant to a whole tribe/nation, that it is inevitable and applicable to all the tribe members, who thus have no capacity to make individual choice and thus alter individual destiny. The implication of this is that adverse events are the consequence of external happenings, the way the gods work, and that the tribe must make sacrifice or in other ways expiate

and appease those gods. Thus any iniquity is the result of external forces, not the responsibility of the individual. This paresha deals with precisely the transition Cahill describes, requiring expiation by the high priest for the whole tribe of Israel, but ONLY after cataloguing and making explicit, each sin and transgression, with acknowledgement by each Israelite of individual level guilt/responsibility. It is THAT collective responsibility that is transferred to the scapegoat So what are scapegoats? There is an evolution over time in the concept of the scapegoat. As described in the Paresha, the scapegoat is a neutral vector, a passive carrier with no causal relationship to events, nor accountability for their occurrence or consequences. This is a ritual transfer, a riddance of personal and community wrong doing by “driving out” – and the vector could be a any animate being – a dog, a cat, a bull or, indeed a goat – although perhaps the selection of the goat is significant, since in later years the goat came to symbolize the devil incarnate. In subsequent ancient Greek civilization, the scapegoat became a human being – the Pharmakos –a citizen who had definable inadequacy (a criminal, beggar, or cripple) who at times of natural disaster ( famine, invasion, plague) or even cyclical events, was driven out of the community ( or stoned), as a semi- sacrificial ritual. Such a scapegoat still had no responsibility or causal role in the particular event that occasioned his fate – he was in a sense, still a passive vector. Contemporary iterations of scapegoating are psychodynamic or socio – political, however, and are much more dangerous. They are suffused with the concepts of causality and accountability. The scapegoat is usually a whole community and is identified as the cause of another community’s troubles. It is again a transference of sorts, but a very different one – no longer the driving out of a passive vessel or carrier,

but the demonization of a whole group. That group may be perceived to be merely different – by color, gender, dress or customs, or to be threatening by virtue of their very success - as we read on Pesach in the Haggadah “there rose up a new Pharaoh and he knew not Joseph and said look the Israelite people are much too numerous for us….” The choice of a categorical “scapegoat” is targeted and to some extent specific although the boundary between scapegoating and generic prejudice is porous – those who hate Jews are usually not so hot on blacks, Muslims or women! Also inherent is the freedom of the dominant or powerful elements of a society to nominate/identify the scapegoat and to vest it/the group with accountability for “troubles” - leading to hatred and ethnic cleansing . While we have been amongst the most frequently scapegoated communities, we do not own the role of the scapegoat – in our own time, in the wake of 9/11, the Reverend Jerry Falwell assured us that the terrible tragedy was divine retribution for the proliferation of the gay life style and our collective tolerance of it. And in the middle ages, the dominant forces were the temporal power, the feudal lords, and the spiritual power, the Church, both entirely male controlled. Threatened by the acquired stature of the middle aged women of the villages, who intervened at the two primal times of the life cycle, birth and death, and thus threatened the control of both powers, the extant powers identified these women as witches, responsible for all sorts of calumny, and launched an orgy of destruction and burning in which millions of so-called crones perished. The historian Margaret Macmillan, in discussion on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, pointed out that the response to the catastrophe - two wars of retribution and targeting of Islam in general - have produced untold misery for all American Muslims, escalating death rates for all participants, and an increase in terrorist recruitment – hardly a success

story, and one that tarred a whole community with responsibility for the incomprehensible act of evil of a small minortiy - another variant of scapegoating. As catastrophic as the results of scapegoating are in the public realm, equally important are they in our inner, spiritual realm. The impact of devolving blame, responsibility and accountability on other individuals or groups, focuses us externally, away from self examination and introspection, and self improvement. The opportunity of Yom Kippur is to reclaim the gift of the Jews - to focus inward rather than outward, to reframe the issues from who did what to me to what responsibility do I/we have and what can I/we do to achieve change rather than what can we do to others to achieve revenge. As a people who survived the pogroms of Eastern Europe and the ovens of Nazi Germany, as a people of conscience and accountability, Yom Kippur demands of us that we precisely look at the antecedents of what is occurring in our lives, our families, our community and our society, what our responsibilities for the negatives are and how we can turn, reframe ourselves and our behaviours to move forward in the task of restoring and repairing our lives, our community, our society and our world.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful