Parshat Achrei Mot/Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27)
This past week’s short sermon catered to our 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders who participated in leading the service (they did such a beautiful job BTW), as well as their families. It is written in a way that I could actually engage all in a conversation following this short story, which I borrowed from JPS’ B’nai Mitzvah Torah Commentary. The idea of “scapegoating” and where this term actually comes from is a repeating topic that comes up at different times throughout the year.
It’s also a great topic for an entire sermon for Yom Kippur!
I encourage you to think about the questions presented at the conclusion: is there anyone you’ve ever scapegoated? If so, it’s never too late or too soon to ask to be forgiven. Or, forgive, if you were the one to carry on your shoulders the blame for other people’s mishaps.
It’s All Your Fault! 
Ryan was chosen for playing the main character in his prestigious middle-school musical, and, during his solo – his voice cracked, funny sounds came out of his throat, and everyone in the audience were laughing hysterically.
Right after the play, Ryan’s fellow classmates scolded him. “You messed up the whole show for us!” Of course, Ryan’s classmate Derek missed his cue, and Jordan forgot one of her lines. Matthew forgot to wear his special shirt, and Ava simply came on stage at the wrong cue. But those mess-ups don’t matter, because Ryan was the one who messed up the musical. Everyone blamed Ryan, including the musical’s conductor.
Blaming someone for the failure of “everything” is called “scapegoating” – putting all the blame on something or someone else. And this very concept, the idea of placing all the burden of blame on one scapegoat actually comes from this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Achrei Mot.
In old biblical days, the High Priest would take two goats and cast something similar to dice. According to the way the dice fell, the High Priest would know which goat to sacrifice to God, and which one of the goats would be sent into the wilderness, carrying all the bad deeds of all the Israelites with it.
The terrified goat would run away, or “escape” for her life into the wilderness, which is how the term “scapegoating” came to be. Now. don’t be fooled into thinking that “scapegoating” happened only in days of old! Scapegoating still happens here and now, all the time:
- It happens in school plays, like what happened to Ryan.
- It happens daily in sports teams (“Oh let’s blame the coach for losing 3 games in a row!”).
- It happens in families (“Oh, Johnny is the black sheep of the family. He messes up all our family trips by being loud and obnoxious”).
- It happens in the businesses world (“We are not doing as well as we could because of the weak marketing team!”).
We, Jews, have been the scapegoats for so many centuries, basically since we became a People: we have been blamed for economic distress, capitalism, atheism, the media, bad movies, problems in the Middle East, and the list of examples, of course, goes on and on.
“In some ways” wrote Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, the President of CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, “we have completely misunderstood the ancient scapegoat ritual. It’s not that we are blaming the goat for our sins.”
Not at all! After all, how can a leaf-eating, cute and sweet natured goat be blamed for someone’s inability to keep their hands to themselves, or tongues from spreading lashon ha’ra (speaking evil of someone else) who doesn’t deserve it?
Rabbi Hirschfield continues, “The success of the scapegoating ritual really depends on the individuals’ willingness to take responsibility for the wrongs they have done – just the opposite of the way we usually think about making a scapegoat of someone.”
So what’s the lesson here? Take responsibility for your own failings, or misdeeds. Don’t blame others. And don’t even bother looking for a goat to carry your sins away, because I don’t think we have too many of those here in Wayne, right? ☺
Here are questions to ponder and discuss:
- Have you ever scapegoated someone?
- Have you ever been scapegoated?
- How have you taken responsibility for your own weaknesses?
- Are Jews still scapegoated today?
- Any other minorities in American society today are being scapegoated?
- Do you think Israel is being scapegoated?