Echoes Of The Scapegoat


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 7:33 p.m.
Torah: Lev. 16:1-20:27
Haftorah: Amos 9:7-15 (Ashkenaz); Ezekiel 20:2-20
Havdalah: 8:37 p.m.

The Yom Kippur scapegoat ritual is both compelling and foreign. It leads us to think about complex issues like sin and purity. This ritual should be something that we can understand and relate to, but as we read, verse by verse [Leviticus 16:5-34], getting mired in the details, we get confused by who is sprinkling what and when, and we lose sight of the very important statement being made about communal and individual responsibility.

One way to find new meaning in this text is to read it intertextually; that is, to read this text in conjunction with another text to which it relates in theme and content, but to which it doesn’t explicitly connect.

The scapegoat ritual involves Aaron, the High Priest, taking two goats by God’s command and, after selecting one by lots, sacrificing one and sending the second to wander in the wilderness. The entire process achieves the goal of expiating the sins of the priest and of the community. This ritual takes on new and different meaning when we read it alongside Genesis 21 and 22: Abraham had two sons and, following God’s command, “sacrificed” Isaac and sent Ishmael to wander in the wilderness. Remarkably, the actions of Abraham, as a father and as a servant of God, parallel or presage the Yom Kippur ritual performed by Aaron.

I always found it troubling that Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael away on foot to the desert [Gen. 21:10-21], when it would have achieved the same goal to wait until a caravan passed by and let them join. The intertextual reading, however, makes it clear that the process of ending up in the desert is an important element in the text and that Hagar and Ishmael’s meeting with God in the desert is as much a part of the story as their banishment.

There is also a longstanding question related to the Leviticus text. How can a goat be sent away from God? The intertextual reading reminds us that there is no possibility of being sent “away from God.” Being sent to the wilderness in Genesis means being sent to a place where you meet and connect with God. God appears to Hagar twice in the wilderness, making it clear that in the Bible there is no possibility of being sent “away from God.”

It is always exciting to see new meanings in biblical texts. That excitement, however, is only the first step. It is important to then figure out what new meaning you can draw out of the fascinating connection. While the process of sacrificing and banishing draws the texts together, Aaron and Abraham are very different characters. One is a priest and one is a patriarch. Aaron holds a leadership position in the community, while Abraham’s role is within his own family. God speaks directly with Abraham, but directs Aaron through Moses. Reading these two texts intertextually causes us to bring together these separate areas of biblical life. It makes us look at connections between priests and patriarchs, between ritual and narrative texts, between the communal and the familial, seeing that perhaps they are closer than they seem.

It also connects those who hear God’s word in different ways.

This intertextual reading speaks to communal issues today. Many talk about a divide between Jews whose Jewish focus is in the synagogue and those whose focus is on Jewish life outside the synagogue. The intertextual reading reminds us that such distinctions are artificial. We should be able to make connections between the synagogue and the JCC, between social action organizations and learning communities, just as this text brings together the priestly and the patriarchal, the “juicy” narratives of Genesis and the detailed texts of Leviticus. Similarly, there are discussions about the differences between Jewish practice in the home and in the community, between those whose Jewish practice is very individual, and those whose focus is on the community.

Again, this intertextual reading leads us to see the connection between Abraham, the family leader, and Aaron, the community leader, and thus, between those who connect to Jewish life more individually, and those whose relationship to Jewish life is more communal. As the text connects Abraham, who hears God’s word directly, and Aaron, who hears God’s word through Moses, we need to make room today to connect those with varying relationships to God and spirituality.

Just as seemingly unrelated texts, when read together, can lead to new interpretations, new meanings and greater insight into our Sacred literature, so, too, disparate communities and different approaches to Jewish life lead to growth and new understanding when brought into conversation with each other and allowed to interact. In the process of drawing together, these different groups may also draw closer to God.

Ora Horn Prouser  is executive vice president and dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion.