Scapegoats then and now
TorahParshat Acharei Mot

Scapegoats then and now

Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30

This past summer, on a congregational mission to Israel, members of my shul and I boarded Jeeps and drove out into the Judean hills, just east
of Jerusalem. We bounced our way through the desert until our driver took us to the top of a precipice overlooking the Dead Sea.

“This is the place of the scapegoating,” he pointed out. He reminded us of a line from our Torah portion, Acharei Mot, that describes the ritual of two goats, one offered as a sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple, the other sent away into the desert “to Azazel.”

The one to be sacrificed in Jerusalem had a sanctified moment of death. The one set for Azazel had the sins of the nation placed on its head and was then led to the place where we were standing. He pointed east over the edge of the cliff and showed us a pit at the bottom. “This is where the goat, allotted to Azazel was pushed off to its death.”

In Leviticus 16:21, when our ancestors were in the Sinai Desert, the goat designated for Azazel was not killed. Instead, with all of the sins of the community placed on its head, it would head out into the desert presumably to die of thirst. Once the Israelites settled in Israel and had built the Temple, the tradition morphed into one in which the goat was actually “pushed” off the cliff to hasten its death. Tradition tells us that a red thread would be attached to its horns, half of which was removed before the animal was sent away. If the rite had been effective, the red thread would turn to white.

The word “Azazel “is a hapax legomena,” meaning it appears only once in the Torah.

So, what does it mean if we see it only once?

According to two medieval commentators, Ibn Ezra and Nahmanides, Azazel was the name of a spirit or demon, one of the fallen angels referred to in Genesis 6:2, similar to the goat spirit called Pan in Greek mythology. So, according to them, sins can either be consecrated and turned to good or desecrated with no redemption possible. The best we can hope for is to distance ourselves from them.

Rashi is more pragmatic, stating that Azazel means “a steep, rocky or hard place.” It’s a physical place not a spiritual one. Finally, and I like this the best, the word Azazel could mean a “goat that escaped,” which William Tyndale in his 1530 English translation of the Bible morphed into “escaped goat,” that later became “scapegoat” by dropping the “e.” Thus the scapegoat was blamed for everyone else’s sins.

We all carry hurts, sins and the pain of regret. We spend billions of dollars every year seeking therapeutic ways to cleanse our souls of remorse and regret. I remember speaking with a therapist once, and she spoke with great respect for our tradition of “tashlich.” “Ritual concretizes the emotional work already done” she said “of casting away one’s pains
and regrets.”

Likewise, the ritual of the scapegoat was meant to carry away our sins. Our ancestors wisely did not blame others for their sins. They owned them and then sought to distance themselves from their consequences through ritual. They did not blame others for their fate but accepted responsibility. The biblical prophets proclaimed that our national suffering was a result of our collective sin, crying out “mipnei chata-enu,” “because of our own sins.”

Ironically, scapegoating today means the opposite of the biblical practice. Today, it means blaming someone else for our troubles.

Sadly, the state of Israel is scapegoated and blamed for a multitude of sins committed by other nations and then ignored by the United Nations. We Jews are also scapegoated, being blamed for almost everything from COVID to climate change. We are the quintessential scapegoat.

In the end, blaming others solves nothing. No good can come from scapegoating. Only by accepting responsibility for our faults, seeking atonement and finding a ritual expression for that purge, can we grow and transform the thread of transgression into one of wholeness. PJC

Rabbi Gregory S. Marx is the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent, an affiliated publication where this first appeared. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.

read more: