Parshat Aharei Mot 2019
Mark Twain relates that during his stint as correspondent in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii today), he was told that if a person sinned he could bring a family member, say his mother-in-law, as a sacrifice, for atonement. In other words, he could keep sinning as long as his relatives held out.
In today’s parsha we read: “And Aaron placed his two hands on the head of the living goat and confessed to all the sins of the children of Israel and all their iniquities and all their violations; and he placed them on the head of the goat and sent it out into the desert.” This description of the Yom Kippur service in the Temple in today’s reading is the source of the term ‘scapegoat,’ which is simply a shortening of the term ‘escape goat’ – the goat that helps someone escape his due punishment.
Reading about this ancient ritual we have to wonder: How is it possible to place the sins of someone else on the head of any living being, whether animal or human? Are sins like objects that can be transferred from place to place, and removed as easily as a stain in the rug?
Obviously, this ritual like many others is the concretization of an abstract idea. Thus, the scapegoat is a variation of the sin offering. Both are symbolic acts intended to allow a person to atone for a sin and thus be unburdened of guilt that would otherwise last forever.
While we were probably not the first people to use scapegoats, few peoples in history have had as much experience in BEING society’s scapegoat.
Subjectively speaking, there is something comforting in finding the alleged source of a problem, and eliminating that source or punishing it or demonizing it. In America and parts of Europe these past years the demon is illegal immigrants. In Israel it’s smolanim – lefties or yemaniim – righties. And for most of the world it’s Jews.
Psychologist Rivka Neeman explains that scapegoating is akin to a very deep and irrational unconscious human tendency to what Freud calls projection. Projection is a defense mechanism whereby we inflict some form of harm on another person without necessarily being conscious of it.
According to Freud, what we usually project are parts of ourselves that we have difficulty accepting. This could be actions that upset our conscience, qualities we are ashamed of or desires we have difficulty acknowledging. It’s like a person in a glass house throwing stones. Misers bemoan the cheapness of others. And by attributing our weaknesses to another, we double-dip. First we feel purged of that weakness AND second, we feel superior to the person to whom we have ascribed that weakness.
Projection becomes scapegoating (like antisemitism or xenophobia) when the action is unmonitored or is employed by leaders as a tactic to divert a society’s attention from the real source of a problem (political examples can be found in any newspaper any day). Countries suffering from economic or political woes will blame one minority group, which is then marginalized or isolated. They become the biblical scapegoat that is banished, carrying on their back all the sins and woes that society (or its leader) does not wish the people to see.
But leaving behind the psychological mumbo jumbo, the Yom Kippur service, with the original scapegoat, is actually implementation of an eye for an eye. We were supposed to die or be punished, and instead we offer another life to bear the punishment intended for us.
This appears earlier in the Torah. The firstborn Egyptians were all killed in the final plague, and in exchange, we were commanded to dedicate to God all the first-born animals and humans in our camp and then to redeem them. That’s the source of the pidyon haben – the redemption of the firstborn boy.
So this is an established form of exchange, probably as old as the oldest religion. In the case of the Yom Kippur service, only one question remains unanswered. What did the poor goat do to deserve to die?
No answer will satisfy today’s sensibilities about animals and their feelings. Historically, animals were property and as such we could do to them as we wished. Like all property, animals were worth money, and by offering up a sacrifice of a lamb or goat or bullock or pigeon (if that’s all we could afford), we were paying a ransom (an eye for an eye) for our release from sin or punishment. To this we can say – better them than us.
While the Temple with all the attendant sacrifices and ceremonies are no more, conscious scapegoating as a political tactic continues unabated and threatens social stability and cohesion. Branding one group in a society as pariahs (and worse) either because that group doesn’t agree with the prevailing opinions or because it is too successful or because it is weak enough, is cynical and dangerous to the unity and inner strength of a country. This is not projection. This is not pure scapegoating. It is a calculated use of fake news, of disinformation mixed with lashon hara – gossip on a tremendous scale, intended to deepen schisms in society.
As we enter the post-Pesach phase that includes Yom Hashoa, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut, let’s hope that in our country levelheadedness will prevail and we can become one nation, united, that can truly serve as a light unto the nations.