Looking for someone to blame? Well, some would say you’ve come to the right Torah portion because this week, in Acharei Mot, we meet the scapegoat. But those people would have it wrong.
We think of the scapegoat as the person or group who gets blamed for something even when it was not their mistake, fault, or misdeed. They may have not even been involved, yet they are subjected to illogical antagonism. They may be different in some way, an outsider. If it’s a group, there may be generalizations about what “they” do, how “they” think.
Think about poor Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, who allegedly started the great Chicago fire of 1871. Tess Hutchinson in Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery. Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. The Jews many times through history. “Scapegoats” all – maligned, persecuted and even murdered through no fault of their own.
Let’s go back to the source. In the Yom Kippur ritual described in Lev 16:5-10 and 20-22, two goats are taken to stand at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Lots are cast to determine which is designated for Adonai and which will assume the sins of the Israelites before being sent into the wilderness (or, in some interpretations, thrown off a cliff.) Aaron sacrifices the first goat to God but with the second he lays both his hands on the goat’s head and confesses over it all the transgressions of the Israelites. Thus burdened, the goat is set free in the wilderness. Symbolically, the people have atoned, repenting of the sins the goat has carried off. Conceptually it’s related to tashlich on Rosh Hashanah in acknowledging, but then casting away, our sins for a fresh start. It’s a way to clean our slates, refresh our screens, start from scratch.
That’s not what the modern-day scapegoat looks like. Yes, today’s scapegoat still carries the blame for things they did not do, but the tormentors don’t acknowledge their own role in whatever issues are being heaped on the scapegoat. Unlike the biblical ritual, now those piling perceived sins on the scapegoat take no ownership and no accountability for the consequences of their own actions. Instead, they are looking for someone else to blame. To make matters worse, in general, today’s scapegoat is “the other” – the minority, the poor, the weak, the immigrant. Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of xenophobia provide platforms for large communities to pursue scapegoating, leading to ostracism, discrimination, and even violence.
Women of Reform Judaism has long stood up for those who have become the scapegoats of the world, with resolutions and action on behalf of marginalized and oppressed groups; our long history of advocacy for religious freedom, racial justice, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, immigrant justice, and human rights in general dates back to our earliest resolutions. Through this history we have recognized the true meaning of the scapegoat – we do not seek to blame others for our inaction or inadequacies, nor do we hide behind a presumed inability to change ourselves. Rather we acknowledge our shortcomings, take responsibility for our choices, hold ourselves accountable, and seek to improve ourselves and the world around us.
May it always be so!
Blair Marks is the immediate Past President of Women of Reform Judaism. She is also a member of Temple Kol Emeth Women of Reform Judaism in Marietta, Georgia.