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The Scapegoat

Acharei Mot (Leviticus 16-18 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

"The goat will bear upon itself all their iniquities..." (Leviticus 16:22)

Our Parsha begins with the discussion of one of the most perplexing ceremonies in the Torah; the offering of a "scapegoat" to atone for our sins – the goat that is pushed over the cliff on the Day of Atonement and carries away all the sins of the Jewish people on its back.

Maimonides tells us that the "scapegoat":

...[Has the capacity to] atone for all the sins in the Torah, whether they be light or grave, whether the transgression was committed unintentionally or with deliberation, whether the sin is known to the perpetrator or whether it is not ... (Laws of Repentance 1:2)

By way of explanation the Midrash offers the following idea:

This goat [the scapegoat, called sair in Hebrew] refers to Esau, as it is written: "but my brother Esau is a hairy [written as soir in Hebrew] man" (Genesis 27:11) [The Hebrew words sair, "goat," and soir, "hairy" are spelled identically.]

[It is further written]: "The goat will bear upon itself all their inequities (avonotam)." In Hebrew the word avonotam can be split into two words avonot tam, meaning "the inequities of the innocent." This is a reference to Jacob about whom it is written: "Jacob was a wholesome (tam) man" (Genesis 25:27). The word tam in Hebrew means wholesome or innocent. (Bereishis Rabba 65:15)

The scapegoat represents Esau, and the Midrash suggests that this explains how it works; the sins committed by Israel are somehow traceable back to Jacob, as we are all his descendants. Jacob's sins can somehow be blamed on Esau, and therefore it makes sense that the goat, which represents Esau, carries away all of Israel's sins. Is there any way we can bring these seemingly strange concepts a little closer to earth?


This week's Torah portion opens with an incident involving human deaths that is reminiscent of the scapegoat concept:

"God spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron's two sons, who brought an [unauthorized] offering before God and they died." (Leviticus 16:1)

As we might recall from Parshat Shmini (Leviticus, Chap. 10) Aaron's sons were consumed by fire when they entered the Holy of Holies unbidden in an attempt to bring an unauthorized incense offering.

Moses offered Aaron the following words of consolation:

"Of this did God speak, saying: 'I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me, thus I will be honored before the entire people.' And Aaron was silent." (Leviticus 10:3)

The Talmud interprets the meaning of this verse with the help of a Midrash:

Moses told Aaron: "Aaron, my brother, I knew that the Temple would be sanctified through someone very holy and close to God. I thought it had to be either you or me ... but now I see that they, Nadav and Avihu, are greater than we are [as they were selected]." (Talmud, Zevochim 115b)

Moses consoles Aaron with the thought that the deaths of Aaron's two sons were required to sanctify the Temple. Apparently two of the holiest Jews alive had to die in order for the Temple to be properly sanctified. Moses thought that he and Aaron would be selected, and he was somewhat surprised when Aaron's two sons were chosen instead. If so, Nadav and Avihu were also scapegoats of a sort; their deaths were required to inaugurate the Temple for the rest of us.

Although bringing the unauthorized incense is explicitly stated as the reason for their deaths, the Talmud is suggesting that it was not the ultimate reason. While Nadav and Avihu would not have died had they done nothing wrong, the punishment of their sin took into account the fact that their deaths would have secondary effect; there was something still missing in the Temple and their deaths were needed to supply the missing factor.

How can people's deaths do that? What was missing? Doesn't the Torah abhor the very idea of human sacrifice?!

The scapegoat concept is integral to atonement. To understand it better, we must understand atonement better. Atonement is the conclusion of a long process that begins with repentance. To understand atonement better we must do a little work on repentance first.


Atonement is conditional upon repentance, and repentance has definite rules. At the very beginning of the Laws of Repentance, when he is discussing the rules of repentance, Maimonides explains that repentance requires confession, and that confession contains three elements:

  1. Admitting to having committed the sin.
  2. Expressing sincere regret for having committed it.
  3. Making a firm commitment never to do it again.

Without a confession that contains all these elements, complete atonement is impossible to attain no matter how sincere the sinner may be in his heart concerning his or her repentance.

Maimondes discusses the issue of repentance specifically in the context of the Day of Atonement in the second Chapter (ibid.):

The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is a time of repentance for everyone – for the individual as well as the congregation. It marks the final stage of forgiveness and pardon for Israel and therefore, everyone is commanded to repent and confess on Yom Kippur ... The confession that Israel has adopted to say on Yom Kippur is: But we have sinned, and this is the essence of confession. (Laws of Repentance 2:7-8)

It is perplexing to note that two of the three elements Maimonides himself earlier stressed as being essential requirements of confession are missing from the Yom Kippur confession he cites – the expression of regret over having sinned, and the commitment never to repeat the sin. If Israel as a nation adopts a standard form confession to recite in order to fulfill the repentance requirement of the day of Atonement and incorporates it into the public prayer all Jews are told to recite, how is it possible that the more important aspects of confession are missing from it?


Let us begin by attempting to understand the role confession plays in the repentance process. We Jews do not confess our sins to a priest who is empowered to give us absolution. Given that repentance really takes place in the heart, what possible role does confession play in it?

Repentance is based on change. A person's actions reflect his beliefs, his character and his personality. Repentance is about changing one or all of the above: If we would enunciate the penitent's claim to forgiveness it would probably sound something like this, "I am no longer the person who committed the sin. I have changed, and the sin I committed no longer expresses the person I am. I look back at the person who committed the sin, and I no longer recognize myself in him or her. Since the new 'me' cannot be identified with the sin it isn't fair to punish me."

When this statement reflects the inner actuality of the speaker, God accepts it and takes note of the change. Since the person has changed, and the sin no longer reflects his character and personality, it is irrational to hold the person of today morally responsible and liable for the acts of a person who no longer exists; God duly pardons the sin.


Unlike God, we humans are unable to see into people's hearts; we can only see each other's deeds; we are therefore unable to factor repentance effectively into human justice systems. But most of us do appreciate the rationale of linking repentance to forgiveness. We generally agree that the essence of a person is character, and when there is a profound character change in someone, we are dealing with a brand new person. Most of us can relate to the principle of atonement – if a sinner becomes a genuinely different person from who he was when he or she committed the sin we can all see the justice of excusing him or her from having to suffer the consequences.

In effect then, repentance involves the shedding of old character traits. We are unable to alter our height, our I.Q., or our age, but we are able to change our characters. When we repent we are changing our inner furniture, leaving only the outer shell intact. In the view of most of us, such a change makes us another person entirely.

We cannot shed our character traits without tinkering with the innermost core of our beings, throwing out parts of the old operating system that was in charge of directing the drives and motivations that prompted us to sin. To step away from our old selves we need to shed these old motivators like a snake sloughs off his worn out layer of skin and emerge with a brand new operating system that drives us toward the good.

Speech is the only method at our disposal for externalizing our inner selves. It is through the medium of speech that we express the feelings in our hearts and the thoughts in our minds. When they are expressed they become part of the outer world in a sense. Verbalizing our feelings of repentance by confessing the sins we have committed is our way of discarding old thoughts and attitudes; we eject the feelings that prompted the commission of our sins by speaking them out; we symbolically throw them out of our inner environment wrapped in the packages of our words.


Change is difficult. We often regret our actions as soon as we complete them, but rarely do we succeed in really changing ourselves. Most often we repeat our past mistakes and regret them each time all over again. The third requirement of repentance, the resolution 'never to do this again' is the sticking point that generally defeats our sincere desire to become better people. As everyone who owns a computer knows, when there is something basically wrong with your operating system you are in big trouble. We need serious help to change. This is where the Day of Atonement comes in.

Let us attempt to trace how Yom Kippur operates by looking at the Temple service and applying the spiritual symbols to the individual Jewish heart.

On Yom Kippur, the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies, and performed precisely the same act that caused the deaths of Aaron's sons. We are reminded at the very outset:

"And God said to Moses: Speak to Aaron your brother – he shall not come at all times into the Sanctuary (the Holy of Holies) within the curtain, in front of the cover that is on the Ark, so that he should not die; for in a cloud will I appear on the Ark-cover." (Leviticus 16:2)

Rashi explains:

Why did God couple the death of Aaron's sons with the commandment restricting Aaron's entry into the Holy of Holies? Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah compared this to a sick person who had to be cautioned not to eat cold food or sleep in a damp place. One doctor merely gave him the instructions without elaboration, but a second doctor told him, "Unless you avoid cold food and damp places, you will die as so-and-so died." Clearly the second doctor's warning was more effective. (Sifra)

The first part of this week's Torah portion is devoted to describing the special conditions that are required to render Aaron's annual entry into the Holy of Holies safe.


In order to understand the significance of entering the Holy of Holies, we have to remember how we ourselves are put together spiritually.

Tradition teaches that the human soul has five levels, of which the lower three are connected to our physical selves. And it is these three that concern us here. At the core of our being we are a neshama, which is always connected to God to such a great extent that it is difficult to tell where the Divine Presence ends and the person begins. Although our neshama is the core of our being, we are not self-conscious on the level of neshama; we are only self-conscious on the bottom two levels of our souls, the Ruach and the nefesh.

The neshama is connected to our ruach, our spiritual self. We are all self aware as spiritual beings; we can all imagine ourselves as living without our bodies, and we all have a sense of morality and right and wrong that we know is above all materialistic considerations. The ruach is connected to our nefesh, the life force that burns within us and is the engine that drives us, the materialistic part of our beings.

The Temple is put together in the same way. The outermost level is called the Azara, and that is where the animal sacrifices are all brought. This level parallels the nefesh. It is connected to the Heichal, a much more spiritual place. No animal sacrifices are ever offered there. The incense is offered in the Heichal, that is where the Menorah is to be found; the Holy bread that stays warm and fresh from Shabbat to Shabbat is there. It is clearly a more spiritual part of the Temple, but we still have daily access to it just as we do to our own spirituality. This level parallels the ruach.

Finally within the innermost recesses of the Heichal is the Holy of Holies; a separate alcove that is curtained off; the Holy Ark is kept there and this is the place that the Shechinah inhabits; we do not have daily access to this part of the Temple at all. The only person who ever enters it is the High Priest, and even he is only allowed to enter once a year. This lack of access is clearly an existential expression of our lack of access to our own neshamot.


The symbolism is clear; the High priest who enters the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur must enter it on the level of neshama.

Life is problematic only because we are not really sure about how to define ourselves. Were we able to see ourselves clearly as neshamot and were we therefore conscious of our unbreakable attachment to God, the point of our lives would be quite clear to us; we wouldn't be at all confused as to why we exist and what we are supposed to do with our lives. But God decreed that we must live with free will, and therefore the awareness of how our life depends on our attachment to God at the source of our beings is withheld from our self-consciousness.

Instead we are placed in a situation of existential conflict; our raging life force, the nefesh, and our spiritual side, the ruach, are always contending with each other pulling us in different directions. The ceaseless conflict confuses us; none of us are sure of who and what we are. No one wants to deny their real selves and live the wrong life; our confusion about who we are is the source of our sins. The eternal confusion is the dilemma that forms the backdrop against which we must exercise our free will.

Our state of oblivion regarding the existence of our neshama, the highest level of our soul that is always attached to God renders us incapable of reaching clarity about who we are and clearing up our confusion.

Stepping into the Holy of Holies means becoming self-conscious as neshamot. The fog of confusion is instantly dissipated and replaced by total clarity of vision. To enjoy such clarity runs contrary to the purpose of living in this world. To enter the Holy of Holies is to step out of life as God decreed that it must be lived here in this world of difficult choices. When Nadav and Avihu took this step, they terminated the point of their continued existence in the world of choice and therefore left it; they died.

But they sanctified the Temple in the process. They demonstrated the existence of the Temple on the level of neshama, they demonstrated the existence of their own Neshamot, the state of the attachment of the neshama to God, and how this relationship is mirrored by the Holy of Holies in the Temple. To us plain folks the cause of their death would perhaps have remained a total mystery; but to the 'generation of the wise' who stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai the lesson taught by their deaths was obvious, and revealed the power of the heretofore missing dimension of the Temple, the Holy of Holies.


We are at the cusp of Yom Kippur. The level of clarity to which Nadav and Avihu aspired may not be possible to hang on to in this earthly life, but the occasional attainment of such a level of clarity is a matter of necessity for every Jew. We must be able to obtain an occasional glimpse of our true origins, otherwise the accumulation of the errors of existence will move us steadily further and further away from our neshamot, from the point of our attachment to God until the way back becomes so cluttered with the debris of our mistakes that the return journey becomes impossible to attempt.

Existence in a state of irreconcilable confusion is just as purposeless as existence in a total state of clarity. Neither state allows for the existence of free will. If we totally lost the ability to find our way back to our origins we would also lose the point of our existence.

That is why God gave us Yom Kippur. On this one special day, God allows us to step out of our ordinary selves and offers us a glimpse of our true connection to Him. Our representative, the Kohen Gadol, is allowed to become self-aware on the level of neshama. This allows us all to get a glimpse of who we really are and points the way back to our origins by temporarily resolving our inner conflicts and allowing us to reach clarity. We can push out the things that separate us from God as long as we are under the inspiration of the clarity offered by the entry of the Kohen Gadol into the Holy of Holies.

Armed with this information we can easily comprehend the difference between the confession of the ordinary penitent, and the confession we utter on Yom Kippur. In the confusion of ordinary life, when we are not self aware on the level of neshama, changing our characters and redefining ourselves is a heroic process. The attainment of the level of sincere regret and the ability to form a firm resolution never to return to past misdeeds – the necessary concomitants of all character change – are extremely arduous tasks. Therefore, repentance is extremely difficult to attain, and the penitent must reach very lofty spiritual levels on the basis of his own efforts.

On Yom Kippur – when we are offered a glimpse of our origins and the confusion of self-definition is largely eliminated – the rejection of all our negatives becomes a matter of course. We are able to push out all our sinful activities as unreflective of our true selves, because we are provided a glimpse of who we really are. The confession of Yom Kippur is simply that we have sinned. We regret our inequities and can truly resolve never to return to them, not because we have developed the determination and resolve necessary for the achievement of internal change, but because of the clear vision of ourselves that the Holiness of the day provides. The character change of Yom Kippur may be very temporary but it is nevertheless very real.


Isaac's twin sons, Jacob and Esau, were spiritually more powerful than we are. They attained the absolute clarity of vision that comes from total self-definition without the help of Divine intervention, through the exercise of their own freedom of choice. Jacob defined himself as a neshama – Jacob was a 'wholesome man', totally consistent and whole and free of contradictions. Esau declared, "Look I am going to die," thus defining himself as a creature of this world only, a man of the field.

We do not possess the spiritual strength to arrive at the clarity of vision that allows such sharp self-definition, but on Yom Kippur, the original distinction between Jacob and Esau reestablishes itself in all of us with God's help. We, the descendants of Jacob, regain our forefather Jacob's original wholesomeness. Our total lack of confusion highlights the opposite side of the coin as well. All of a sudden we are a billion percent clear that we are not Esau, and we realize that the spiritual problems we face the rest of the year comes from the lack of clarity about not being Esau. This then is the secret behind the idea of the "scapegoat."

The loss of the Temple and the Holy of Holies, the fact that we can no longer sacrifice the "scapegoat" does not mean that we have entirely lost Yom Kippur. But we have bodies; we are inhabitants of a world of action, not spirit. God gave us a Temple and sacrifices because He knows that we are always hampered by the inability to translate our thoughts into deeds. Today, Yom Kipur still helps us to attain the spiritual level of true repentance, but the absence of the physical entry of the Kohen Godol into the Holy of Holies and the lack of the actual scapegoat, makes it much more difficult for us to hang on to the inspiration provided by this great uplift.


The answer is to focus on the positive. On Yom Kippur, when we reach the level of neshama we should take upon ourselves one single Mitzvah that we will observe throughout the year on the level that we would observe all our Mitzvoth if we managed to hang on to the clarity of Yom Kippur. It would be foolish to select a difficult Mitzvah; even as we stand before God on Yom Kippur on the level of neshama, we are perfectly aware that tomorrow we will not even remember how it felt. A good example of an easy mitzvah: a single blessing; to always recite the blessing over water with the utmost focus and attention.

A small step perhaps, but it nevertheless allows us to keep the level of neshama as an actuality in our lives during the year. Connection to holiness means rejection of the opposite. If we retain a small point of holiness, we also retain a small point of separation from the level of Esau. The essence of the scapegoat is complete detachment from what he represents. If we are totally detached from the level of Esau, the actions that arise out of the connection to him do not truly represent us.


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