‘Scapegoat’ Portion has deeper meaning

Rabbi Seth D Gordon serves Traditional Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association. 

Rabbi Seth D Gordon

The opening section of this week’s parashah, Acharei Mot, is especially familiar because it is also read publicly on Yom ha-Kippurim. The most memorable section is the “scapegoat” upon which Israel’s sins were transferred and sent out into the wilderness. Those who do not read closely might conclude that sins could be rather easily, ritually cast away. 

However, the Torah states and the Sages remind us, that verbal confession was an indispensible element in the teshuvah (repentance) process. Moreover, the scapegoat could not be an expiation of all sins. Surely congregants have heard their rabbis teach the Mishnah which emphasizes the distinction between sins committed against people in contrast with those committed against God. The supporting verse is found in this Torah section which includes the words “before God shall you be purified” — the Yom ha-Kippurim ritual purifies only sins between us and God; sins between us and others first require personal teshuvah

However, I direct your attention to a different aspect of the Yom ha-Kippurim ritual when the Mishkan and Beit ha-Mikdash stood. Because of the emphasis on our personal sins and because the Beit ha-Mikdash has been in ruin and inactive for nearly 2,000 years, this other aspect has been buried and largely ignored. I think it was relevant then — and is now. 

Once a year, as part of Yom ha-Kippurim, in case it had become defiled/ impure/contaminated, the Kohen Gadol was to purify the sanctuary. As it was the place amidst Israel on earth where God was most manifest, if the sanctuary were impure, God could not/would not reside there; He withdrew. Purity and the particular Yom ha-Kippurim purification made it possible for God to remain close to us.

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This does not suggest a pagan notion of God who was limited to a place; indeed there are numerous references to the contrary; our God was beyond space (and time). In fact, when King Solomon first built the Beit ha-Mikdash, he acknowledged that no House of God could actually contain God. Rather, God’s presence amidst the Israelite people, His intense concentration of His Glory, and our experience of Him is the heart of the matter. God is ready to be close to us; are we ready to have Him? 

Purity is both a ritual and moral concept. Again, many of the ritual purifications no longer pertain since the destruction of the Beit ha-Mikdash. Indeed, once we were required to be ritually pure before eating of the Pesach lamb — one of the main mitzvot of Pesach. 

Most moderns, to the extent that God is a presence in their lives, think about what God can do or does not do — for them. This under-emphasized aspect of the ancient Yom ha-Kippurim ceremony reminds us that the primary issue, and our primary responsibility, is to be ready for God, to welcome Him, to create the environment on earth that make His presence more manifest. And then we may be blessed with the benefits of that relationship. 

Therefore both Yom ha-Kippurim themes — with different emphases on human sin and environmental purity — form a powerful spiritual dynamic. The various pollutions of our world and our sins drive God away; the purifications along with teshuvah from and expiation of sin bring Him close. Yom ha-Kippurim was and is God’s invaluable gift; it is a day of opportunity for the ultimate relationship and man’s best hope for earthly salvation. Shabbat Shalom.