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Parashat Acharei Mot (Leviticus 16:1-18:27)

“Carry out my laws and safeguard my decrees to follow them;
I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 18:4)

Yehuda Kurzer (President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America) says we study ancient Jewish texts for the light they shed on contemporary life. Parashat Acharei Mot is a good example.

Acharei Mot begins with a lengthy description of the Yom Kippur ritual for purifying the mishkan (Tabernacle). This includes the ritual of the two goats. One is sacrificed to God and the other, supposedly carrying with it the sins of the people, is allowed to escape into the wilderness where it also dies (Lev. 16:7-22). This is the source of the word scapegoat. In each case, the goat is a sacrifice.

Rene Gerard (1923 – 2015; French philosopher) claims ritual sacrifice’s original purpose is to stop the endless cycle of revenge killings in pre-legal system societies. Since the sacrificial victim (originally humans) belongs to neither “side,” the ritual death doesn’t invite reprisal. The Torah takes this idea even further, substituting an animal for a human in the Yom Kippur ritual: the scapegoat.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (1948- ; former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth) observes scapegoat has come to mean something very different today. Faced with a problem, it is easier to project our shortcomings externally and make the “Other” the scapegoat, rather than confronting ourselves internally. So instead of serving as a vehicle for reconciliation precisely because of its innocence (as in Acharei Mot), today’s scapegoat is now made guilty as the source of conflict.

Ultimately, Judaism’s solution to the problem of violence is not ritual sacrifice, but the rule of law. This requires developing a sense of personal accountability and responsibility. That is why on Yom Kippur, we chant “For the sins WE have committed.”

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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