Torah portion Tuesdays is our weekly feature where Cantor Matt Axelrod breaks down each week’s passage so that budding bar and bat mitzvah students can better understand and relate to the text.
If you’re one of the many Jews who find it hard to fast on Yom Kippur, you can blame it all on this week’s Torah portion. It’s here, in Acharei Mot, that we are told to make that day on the Jewish calendar one of “self-denial.” Unfortunately, the rabbis interpreted that to mean doing without any food or drink. If it were up to me, I might have suggested doing without a second cup of coffee.
But before your mind gets all fuzzy from hunger, consider a deeper message within the text. We are introduced to some detailed procedures that Aaron — the head guy among the priestly class — had to go through on this day.
Most of it has to do with taking various animals and sacrificing them in a certain way. There’s also a considerable section detailing with what Aaron had to wear while he was going about all of his duties.
But then, we read something strange, fascinating, and somewhat familiar.
Aaron had to take two goats. One would be marked as a routine sacrifice to God, or a sin-offering, which gave the ancient Jews a way to say they were sorry for their wrongdoings and to make amends. Then Aaron would take the other goat, lay his hands upon its head, and declare out loud all of the sins and evil ways of the Israelites. This was Aaron’s way of transferring all of those sinful actions to the goat itself. Then he sent that goat away into the wilderness away from everyone, never to be seen or heard from again.
Congratulations, you’ve just met history’s very first scapegoat. The expression refers to making someone or something else responsible for a person’s own misdeeds, just as Aaron took all of the people’s misbehavior and sinful actions and put them on that unfortunate goat (through maybe not as unfortunate as the goat that got sacrificed).
What was the message for the Israelites? Do you think they really believed that a goat would carry all of their sins away?
I wonder whether the intent of the ritual was to demonstrate the exact opposite — by using a somewhat primitive (and maybe even comical) image of a simple goat bearing the burden of each person’s sins, it actually helped show that we can’t just simply take our mistakes and make them someone else’s problem.
It’s human nature to assign blame. Certainly kids do it all the time: “Honest! I was trying to practice my bar mitzvah stuff but my little brother kept on bugging me.” That sounds a lot more realistic coming from a teenager than: “I chose not to practice this week. I accept full responsibility for my behavior.”
The ritual of the scapegoat is the precursor to our modern routine of repentance and seeking forgiveness on Yom Kippur. The point of this very holy and sacred day is to examine our behavior over the past year and decide where we went wrong. Not to deflect responsibility, but rather to accept the blame and commit to doing better. This isn’t something that’s a one-and-done kind of deal. That’s why we have Yom Kippur every year.
This parsha is a great way to introduce kids and teens to the idea of personal responsibility. Sure, it’s a lot easier to make your annoying little brother your own scapegoat, but in the end, it never really work
Previous week’s parshas:
Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at cantormatt
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