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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Skorka

Acharei Mot-The scapegoat

This parashah describes the ritual that should be performed on the Day of Atonement, when sins and transgressions that have been committed are expiated after a process of contrition and repentance.

In one of the steps of the ritual, which was practiced until the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, it was necessary to take two goats and choose between them by chance. One would be sacrificed to God and the other to be the scapegoat, the one who symbolically assimilates the sins of the people into himself. The scapegoat is taken to a rock in the desert, the Azazel (Yoma 67, b), from which he is thrown down to his death. According to the Talmud (Yoma 67, b) there is no logical explanation for this ritual, as well as for the prohibition to eat pork, the ritual of purification of the leper, etc. They are understood as the decrees of God that must be fulfilled.

Nevertheless, it is possible to find significance in this ritual for today. In this parashah (Leviticus 17:7) the term goat is seen as designating pagan cults. By sending a goat that carried the sins of the people into the desert, every pagan cult is abhorred. This is the first message of this ritual. By taking two goats, which according to the Talmud (Yoma 62, a) should be as similar as possible, and only a chance selection determined which was for God and which was for Azazel, we are told that appearances can often deceive. In all aspects of life, you must contemplate the profound and not the superficial, the motivation and not merely the outward form. There are those who appear to invoke God, wear vestments, and simulate attitudes of spirituality, but, in their hearts, they are actually unprincipled pagans. Learning to discern a person’s essence and not to judge by mere appearance is the second message of this part of the Yom Kippur ritual.

Shabbat shalom!


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