Scapegoat

For the Sin of...

And for the sin which we have committed before You intentionally or unintentionally...
— Traditional Holiday Prayer Book

In advance of Yom Kippur, I was doing a quick skim of the prayer book to prepare myself mentally for the stress of confession. When you glance at the list you notice that many confessions involve speech, sight and intention. There are also many that capture the things we do wrong even when we are confused or don’t intend any hurt. We have to take responsibility for these wrongdoings as well because no matter the intention, there is also an action. Here are a few to illustrate:

For the sin which we have committed before You under duress or willingly.

And for the sin which we have committed before You by hard-heartedness.

For the sin which we have committed before You inadvertently.

And for the sin which we have committed before You knowingly or unknowingly.

And for the sin which we have committed before You by a confused heart.

At the end of this list, we also mention the sacrifices we would have brought for these offenses had we still had a Temple. “And for the sins for which we are obligated to bring a guilt-offering for a certain or doubtful wrongdoing.” One way we repented for intentional and unintentional sins in the days of old was through sacrifice. As we enter the sacred holiday season and reflect on ancient practices, we turn to the odd practice of the scapegoat, offered by the High Priest in the Temple, to rid ourselves collectively of sin. 

In traditional prayer books, we travel through the Yom Kippur rite almost as an omniscient narrator, tracing the priest’s steps and trying to imagine his trepidation as he offered this gift, hoped for our atonement, and was ready to pay the price with his life if his sacrifices on our behalf failed to achieve a clean slate.

The priest initially offered a bull on behalf of himself and his family. If he was not worthy, we did not want him acting as our messenger. We needed to know that he was spiritually pure and prepared when we sent him off on this holiest of days to represent us. The high priest then took two male goats. According to rabbinic elaboration of this ritual, the goats had to be exactly the same, virtually indistinguishable. In the wilderness, the priest brought them to the entrance of our portable sanctuary and cast lots. One goat would be offered as a sin offering on behalf of the entire community.

The other - the seir le’azazel - the scapegoat, was sent off into the wilderness. According to some Hebrew scholars, azazel means to remove entirely. It was to be accompanied by any human being out into the vast expanse of nowhere. In the Bible, it seems like it wanders off and away. In the Talmud, it must be led to a cliff and meet its death - not led by any escort but by another priest. As I wrote in my book Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe, “Although in talmudic interpretations the goat met its death, in the biblical text the goat was merely shunted to an inaccessible region, a stunning metaphor for the abandonment of sin. We cannot kill the past; we can only hope that it travels to an inaccessible place where it no longer tempts, marks, or harms us.”

To me, the two goats symbolize fate, randomness and closure. The two goats were exactly the same. The two goats both died but in different ways. The two goats symbolically express different forms of contrition. Sometimes we make an offering, and sometimes we hope that what we’ve done wrong will just go away. Take away our sins that we may live and enjoy the freedom to become anew. The lot that is cast expresses the randomness of our fate on any given year. We intend many of our wrongdoings. Others we didn’t mean, but we hurt people and our intimacy with God suffers anyway. Some wrongs can be righted. Others - like the goat that wandered - leave a residual mess.

We use a lot of animals this season to take sin “away:” the fish in the ritual of tashlich, the chicken that is swung as a substitute for us, the goat that is offered on the altar, the goat that is sent off that carries our sins. All of it is not a substitute for repentance but serves instead as an inspiration and a mirror to self and community. Whether it actually accomplishes this is hard to say. Dwight Eisenhower once said, “The search for a scapegoat is the easiest of all hunting expeditions.” We know that all too well.

In a few days we will stand with humility on Yom Kippur. We will face our wrongs and commit to right them. We will take responsibility for the intentional and unintentional ways we walk in the world and hope we can be as generous in granting true forgiveness as we are in asking for it. We will seek closure but understand that sometimes we have to wander in the wilderness for a while.

Shana Tova and Shabbat Shalom