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Scapegoat: Building an Understanding of Self and Society

05/16/2022 02:40:32 PM


Rabbi Ezray

           My dad and I had an ongoing discussion. He felt that religion was full of irrelevant details that bordered on ridiculous. I’m sure that he would have pointed to the details of this morning’s portion, sacrificing animals, sprinkling blood, laying sins on a goat, and use it as an example to prove his point.

          I would always respond that we read in historic context and that the Torah is a jumping off point for interpretation that orients ourselves toward ethics and growth. I come from a religious tradition that embraces that we cannot read the Torah literally, but symbolically. Sadly, his cognition has declined, so he won’t have a chance to respond to my thoughts, although I can imagine the conversation.

          I would say to my dad, and others who look at the strange story of the goat upon whom we pile the wrongs of community, that as we turn this story over, we find lessons that speak to the core of our humanity. 

          Let’s look at the story (Leviticus 16:21):

          Picture the scene: It is Yom Kippur, and everyone has gathered at the tabernacle. The High Priest takes two goats, seemingly indistinguishable, and casts lots. One says, “to the Lord,” the other says, “to Azazel.” The goat upon which the lot, “to the Lord,” falls is offered as a sacrifice. The goat upon which the lot, “to Azazel,” falls is brought before the High Priest, who places his hands on the goat’s head and confesses the wrongdoing of the community and then sends it off to the wilderness.

          What are your reactions? I can hear some of you feeling bad for the goats; one who is killed, the other who has all the sins transferred to it. Others may wonder what happens to the goat that is sent off. Are there goats wandering around bearing our wrongdoings? Others might wonder if transferring sins to another being diminishes personal responsibility. So many questions! I can hear my dad harumph and see him roll his eyes and sarcastically ask, “Really?!”

          “But dad, look at it symbolically!” Maybe the scene reminds us that life is like throwing dice; things seem to happen with no rhyme or reason; capricious. It is only when we can accept that life is capricious that we stop blaming God when things do not work out. That is a difficult lesson, but may be one of the most important truths to accept about life.

          Capricious though life may be, when you read the ritual on a symbolic level it also reminds us of that which we can control. The ritual requires confessing communal wrongdoing. This demands awareness and an ability to admit we have done something wrong. As I picture the scene and imagine the High Priest reciting the wrongdoings of community, the pangs of conscience on all those who hear kick in. The story inspires us to confront where we have done something wrong and begin the process of change. We confront that piece of ourselves which avoids admitting wrongdoings, denying and deflecting. It is as if the story says, “No!” to our tendency to evade and hide and asks us to lift it up, “Say it! Confess! Acknowledge where you and we have missed the mark!”   

          As you dig into the details, there are more symbolic lessons to explore and learn about. The ability to acknowledge wrongdoing, which leads to behavior changing, then helps us to let go of our wrongdoings. So often we carry the wrongs we have committed; burdened, ashamed, and allowing those wrongs to define us, when we need to let them go. Imagining the goat wandering off into the wilderness reminds us that we are not defined by our worst moments. Yom Kippur becomes a day of new beginnings, growth, and healing. This transforms from an odd story, fraught with the potential to be misunderstood, to a story rich with important lessons.

          This symbolic explanation echoes the teaching Maimonides, who wrote in the Guide for the Perplexed: These ceremonies are of a symbolic character…and serve to induce people to repent – as if to say, we have freed ourselves of our previous deeds, have cast them behind our backs, and removed them from us as far as possible. Reading the Torah as a jumping off point to ethics and growth via symbolism and interpretation has been part of our people for thousands of years.

          This interpretation calls us to do the hard work: What do I need to confess and change? How can I avoid the behavior in the future? What do I need to let go of? What is getting in the way? This is the work of cheshbon nefesh – self-examination that we devote ourselves to before the High Holidays.

          As we ask these questions we delve deeper into our behavior, seeking to confront what stands in the way of our letting go of wrongdoings. At our recent board meeting, board member Esther Selk brought the teachings of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, who teaches the concepts of shame and guilt are key to understanding why we cannot let go of wrongdoings. Shame is about how we label ourselves in a negative way. We will never be able to let go of wrongdoing if we hold on to negative self judgement. On the other hand, guilt is not a judgement about ourselves, but about a particular behavior. Guilt can be a catalyst to change behavior. 

          As Esther taught, I thought about modern sociologist Brene Brown, who also teaches about the devasting impact of shame as that which stands in the way of letting go of negative self-image, and guilt as that which can be a powerful tool for growth. She teaches that shame, “is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Whatever I have done is because I am bad. Shame stays inside of us and can control our thoughts and behaviors, it eats away at us, making us feel small, flawed, and never good enough. It spirals, deepens, and takes control of us. It thrives when we fear the judgment of others and compare ourselves to others. We can’t let go of shame, symbolically transferring it on to the goat and sending it away, because it takes over. 

          Guilt is different; it is knowing I have done something wrong. Guilt is the voice of conscience and self-knowledge about an act or characteristic that I can change. It is not that I am bad, which is shame; it is what I did was bad. Rabbi Sacks writes, “Guilt makes a clear distinction between the act of wrongdoing and the person of the wrongdoer.” The act was wrong, but the person who did it retains a sense of wholeness and worth. Guilt can be removed as we right the wrongs. 

          Two little goats. If we think about their lessons, especially the one sent to the wilderness; think about the wrongdoings we need to put on the goat, knowing that it is a process: awareness, action, and changing, then putting it on the goat. And then we send it off, beginning anew.  

          But here is the thing about religion, often something as edifying as what I have described can be misused and misunderstood. We must confront and learn from this as well. How is the scene misused? It becomes about avoiding responsibility. We transfer our wrongs onto another being, as if you just lay it on the goat and all is well. We take the easy route, blaming and pointing fingers. We make others into scapegoats.

          Ironically, the man responsible for introducing the term scapegoat into the English language was himself made into a scapegoat. William Tyndale translated the Hebrew Bible into English in the 16th century with the hope that people would be able to read the Bible on their own and not have to rely on clerics to read it for them. His translation was so good that 80% of it would be later copied into the King James Bible in 1611, which became immensely popular.

          But Tyndale was condemned as a heretic and his translation of the Bible and other writings were blamed as being responsible for Henry VIII’s split with the Roman Catholic Church in 1534! You don’t need to know all the details of his arrest and execution the following year, at the behest of the same Henry VIII, to understand that he was turned into a scapegoat for all the challenges faced by the Catholic Church at the time. Blaming problems on someone else has been a tactic for leaders and society for generations and has grown in recent years.

Sadly, we have been that scapegoat throughout history. At times of crisis and polarization people seek scapegoats, and it is often the Jews. The reality of blaming wrongs on Jews has escalated to dangerous heights. Just this past week, the ADL issued a report documenting a 60% rise in antisemitic violence over the past year. It is a shocking number.

          We need to respond to being scapegoated by standing up for ourselves. In a recent series on antisemitism sponsored by the synagogue, we learned about partnering with civic and religious leaders in speaking out about antisemitism. We reflected on advocacy and activism when it comes to education. We talked about how we need to stand up and act and never be afraid to assert our identity; to be proud of who we are! As we study the ritual of the goats, we vow not to be anyone’s scapegoat anymore.

          And we must look at where scapegoating occurs throughout society. It surrounds us, magnified by social media. It comes from the mouths of leaders of nations and from us! I just read an article about how during the pandemic, scapegoating has become a way for people to bond and they join in extreme acts of cancelling. We too blame our problems on someone else instead of looking at ourselves. Scapegoating surrounds us.

          So, we look at the confusing scene of the goats and learn who we can be at our best, and who we are at our worst. Sacred story becomes a vehicle to learn and grow. Hold on to the lessons of this ritual as it teaches us to avoid our tendency to hold onto shame and let go of our wrongdoings. Let it cracks open our hearts as we reject harsh self judgement. Picture sending the goat into the wilderness and letting go of wrongdoings. Allow the story to motivate you to explore how pervasive scapegoating has become and find the courage to speak out. Imagine how we can create a society and culture which embraces those who are being scapegoated. Rather than vilifying and “othering,” we see the divinity of fellow human beings and seek to build a society which sees the humanity of one another.

          William Tyndale was given the chance to recant.  He refused but was given a moment to pray. English historian John Foxe said he cried out, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!” That is what the ritual of the goats asks us to do, to open our eyes and see our own and society’s actions clearly. May we use this story to ennoble us, inspiring us to kindness, goodness, change, and compassion.

Wed, July 6 2022 7 Tammuz 5782