The GOAT That Isn’t So Great

Photo by Vlad Bagacian on Unsplash

This week's Parashat Acharei Mot contains within it the ancient ritual of sending a "scapegoat" off into the wilderness to die (Vayikra/Leviticus 16:7-10).

The term "scapegoat" was apparently coined by William Tyndale, the first great English Bible translator, and has come to mean "someone whom people blame for their own misfortunes and even for their faults and sins--though the original notion of a scapegoat included the public acknowledgement by the community of its own transgressions."[i]
Many renowned commentators and sages, such as Maimonides and Abravanel, regarded the scapegoat ceremony as an allegory or symbol.
This past week, CAJE’s Leo Martin March of the Living would have been in Poland commemorating Yom HaShoah (if not for the war in the Ukraine) and learning how Jews were cast as the scapegoat within Nazi ideology and propaganda.
The scapegoat ritual described above is a reminder and a foreshadowing.
Throughout history, human beings have the tragic tendency to divide the world between "G!D" and "Azazel" / "the devil" (whatever that means to a particular person or culture).
Then add to that oversimplification, the psychological need to apportion blame and fault to something / someone other than self / culture / country (or perhaps more random elements), and we end up with a deadly mix.
This is precisely what the Nazis did to Jews during the 20's and 30's. And many people feel this is what the Russian government is doing to the Ukraine today.
As Peter Hayes explains in his masterful book, Why? Explaining the Holocaust, "Whatever the popular strength of antisemitism anywhere, it proved really dangerous to Jews only when powerful officials or elites set out to exploit it or harness it to their purposes."[ii]
He sums up the first chapter of his masterful work with these words:

"...Why the Jews? Because an ancient tradition of blaming them for disasters, both present and prospective, persisted into the modern world and even assumed new forms during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. That tradition and its adaptations remained available to wax and wane as the impulse to blame did..."[iii]

One of the most profound experiences of our young people on the March is their exposure for the very first time to Radical Evil.
Most of them (and frankly most of us adults as well) live in our Miami-Dade bubble where we enjoy good lives, mainly free from want and mostly free from any serious forms of antisemitism. We read about evil in the news, if we follow the news at all, but that evil exists at a distance from us.
But stepping foot in the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka and Majdanek, and hearing the testimonies of survivors in person or through their written evidence, participants on the March confront the inherent evil nature of humanity.
Please don't misunderstand me; by “inherent evil nature of humanity,” I do not mean "original sin." In Judaism, we are all born with a clean slate, and after Bar/Bat Mitzvah age, we are accountable for our own actions.
But it also doesn’t mean that human beings are born “good,” either. As anyone who has ever raised a toddler can attest, most children are not innately “good” or concerned for other’s feelings. This is something we must teach them (e.g. after they steal the toy of their playmate, watch them cry and exhibit no empathy).
This is why education — specifically moral education -- is so important!
Because without it, human beings stay selfish, narcissistic and expert at rationalizing whatever they want. And this type of personality inevitably will do evil because their worldview and behavior leads them there.
In today's America, it seems there is always someone or something to blame - other than ourselves, of course. And that is a very, very troubling phenomenon.
Remember that the original scapegoat was invested with the sins of the Israelite people (some say the priests), not with the sins of “those others,” in contrast to the more modern meaning of the English word "scapegoat."
H/alevai -- Would that we all could take stock and rather than only seeking to point the finger of blame away from self, be able to see the role we ourselves play, explicitly or implicitly, in the events that are transpiring.
Rather than focusing on our grievances and blame others, we would give ourselves the gift of growth, of heshbon ha-nefesh / the accounting of our soul, and the possibility of self / communal improvement.

[1] Bernard J. Bamberger, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, p. 860.
[1] Peter Hayes, Why? Explaining the Holocaust, p. 32.
[1] Ibid., p. 35.

Shabbat Shalom