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ACHAREI-KEDOSHIM: The Scapegoat

April 28, 2009

Joel Cohen's Question:

It is understandable in a regime of animal sacrifice, that sacrifices would be especially required on Yom Kippur in an effort to placate G‑d. But sending an ignorant goat into the desert to somehow carry away our sins? It is unsurprising that the nowadays term "scapegoat," which the poor goat sent off to the desert personifies in ritual history – Azazel – gains sympathy.

The paradigm scapegoat (like the contemporary scapegoat), has no sin, but yet he takes on the weight of a person's or the nation's sins. And that somehow helps the people and the nation to cleanse themselves from their sins no matter how grievous? An ignorant goat sent to the desert to die becomes a lucky charm? It would almost make more sense to send the High Priest, since maybe he at least bears some fault. My question doesn't stem from a concern about animal rights, but rather because this ritual seems to have such a superficial meaning.

Rabbi Adam Mintz Responds:

Joel, you are correct to identify the procedure of sending the goat to his death as a symbolic act. Yet, you seem to downplay the role of symbolism which has been at the heart of the entire Book of Leviticus. At the beginning of Leviticus, there is a dispute between Maimonides and Nachmanides about the nature of the sacrifices. While Maimonides saw sacrifices as a reaction to the practices of the pagans of the time, Nachmanides understood them as a symbolic act of substitution. We deserve to be sacrificed for our sins—yet in our place we substitute the animal sacrifice.

The scapegoat is merely the most striking symbol in Leviticus as it represents not only the sins of an individual but the sins of the entire nation. If I were to try to paraphrase the rationale of the Torah, I would say, "how lucky is this goat who is able to achieve atonement for the entire Jewish nation!"

Finally, a word about the goat that was sent to azazel. The ability of a goat to atone for the sins of the Jews seems not only symbolic but also much too easy. What prevented the Jews from sinning all year long and relying on the azazel goat? The Talmud addresses this question and explains that the goat only atones for those people who have first performed the necessary steps of the teshuvah (repentance) process. The goat is merely the symbolic conclusion of the process in which the Jews saw their sins cast over the mountain. In Judaism, symbolism is important but it is not a replacement for the real thing.

Rabbi Eli Popack Responds:

Believe it or not, the scapegoat has been a laughingstock, fodder for the scoffers, since time immemorial.

The Talmud (Yoma 67b) states:

"And my statutes you shall keep" (Leviticus 18:4)—these are things that Satan laughs at: [abstaining from] eating pork, [from] wearing shatnez, the dis-shoing of the husband's brother, purification of a leper, and the dispatching of the Azazel goat. Lest you say, they are nonsense, it is therefore written, "I am the L-rd your G‑d." I have commanded it; you have no right to question."

Thus we see that the Talmud already singles out the scapegoat – from amongst all the sacrifices – as a potential source of derision. Indeed even many of the biblical commentaries question the meaning behind the Azazel goat. Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar describes it as "shocking" (before proceeding to offer an explanation).

Nevertheless, while in other times and societies, many a Hebrew-schooler's a question was dismissed with "the laws of the Torah are above our understanding. This is Judaism, that's just the way it is." For better or for worse, that doesn't sell awfully well anymore.

I found a wonderful explanation, that on one hand explains the rationale behind the scapegoat, while at the same time validates the Talmud's classification of this mitzvah as a chok—a G‑dly statute that defies human logic.

In a most unconventional understanding of Jewish practice, the medieval Jewish philosophers Avraham ibn Ezra and Nachmanides explain that the Azazel goat was actually a bribe. Not the "appeasing the gods" type of bribe, but a bribe nonetheless.

According to the mystical weltanschauung, the forces charged by G‑d to challenge us, through concealing G‑d's presence in the world, receive additional "nourishment" and energy when one succumbs to sin. When repenting, one of the chief objectives is to reclaim the energy that the forces of darkness nursed from the offending act. But these forces don't part with their sustenance so easily. They plead their case before the Heavenly Court, claiming that they "earned" their spoils.

Therefore, G‑d instructs the Jewish people to send off a goat to "the prosecutor" on the day of Yom Kippur. A bribe, mimicking the sacrifices brought by the idol worshippers of biblical times, to ensure that when they are called upon to testify, they will only speak well of the nation.

Nachmanides concludes that this very reason is why the Talmud warned that the Azazel scapegoat would seem absurd and laughable. Because Jews don't believe in intermediaries, or any other power other than G‑d—let alone offer sacrifices to them (which is precisely why the Azazel goat is not offered as a sacrifice, merely "sent off" to the "other side").

And even this very precept we observe – not for fear of the Satan, we fear only One G‑d – but because this is what G‑d, in His infinite wisdom, commanded us to do.

SHEMINI: When Moses "Consoled" Aaron

April 14, 2009

Joel Cohen's Question:

Ostensibly seeking to do no intentional harm, but nonetheless breaking G‑d's dictate, Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, took a fire pan and placed incense upon it and they brought "an alien flame" as G‑d had not commanded. Fire came forth and consumed them; and in an instant they died. Moses came to his brother Aaron and said, "Of this did G‑d speak, saying: I will be sanctified by those who are nearest Me, thus I will be honored before the entire people." And Aaron, the verse says, was silent.

What could Moses have possibly meant or intended by his comment? In the cold night of Aaron's despair, having disastrously lost his two sons, Moses offered a platitude—when, given his unimaginable loss, Aaron needed comfort. Moses could have told Aaron that Aaron's loss was his loss too, offering comfort that he too suffered greatly in the loss. Moses could have said that "Your sons are in a better place in the presence of G‑d—and their punishment will enable us all able to lead a less sinful life." And if really going for the gusto, Moses could have said, "Your sons have preceded you to prepare your place in heaven, making better your transition—for surely heaven will be your resting place too, when your time comes." But no, Moses offered a trite remark.

Couldn't Moses have used this tragic moment to teach the Children of Israel how to better comfort those who suffer from personal tragedy? Or was Moses simply a Lawgiver; the Law was violated and G‑d, as always, needed to be honored above all else? To put it otherwise, was Aaron silent, or was he instead astounded, "silenced," by what Moses offered him that most horrible day in his life?

Rabbi Adam Mintz Responds:

Joel, I am surprised that you are so startled by Moses' words of comfort to Aaron. Aaron's two sons had just perished while they were serving in the Tabernacle. What a terrible way to die—how could Aaron have seen it as anything other than a rejection by G‑d of his sons' actions? Their service was not accepted, rather rejected by G‑d and the cause of their demise.

So, with that introduction, we can begin to understand Moses' words of comfort. At a time when words cannot possibly provide a true sense of consolation, Moses attempts to put the episode in a context that Aaron can both understand and one in which he will not consider his sons as sinners. You see, there's a popular belief that "good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people." So, if the sons of Aaron died, they must be bad people! No, says Moses, G‑d sanctifies Himself with those who are closest to Him. Nadab and Abihu were not bad people—they were actually those "who were closest to G‑d." Aaron was not consoled, and his silence reflects his inability to grasp the moment and deal with the moment. Yet, the reassurances from G‑d's servant Moses that his sons were not sinners but were those who were close to G‑d must have made Aaron feel better.

We don't have the ability when paying a shiva visit to offer insight into G‑d's relationship with the deceased. Aaron was fortunate that his brother's shiva visit included a reassurance from G‑d about the righteousness of his sons. Maybe Aaron's silence was his way of thanking his brother for those words of comfort.

Rabbi Eli Popack Responds:

Joel, to add to what Rabbi Mintz has said, I'd like to point out that Nadab and Abihu's act was not a necessarily a sin at all. The biblical commentator Ohr Hachaim explains that these two achieved such incredible spiritual heights, and such an acute love for their Creator, that their souls simply "kissed G‑d" and ascended to heaven to reconnect with their divine source.

In fact, their astounding greatness is alluded to in the words upon which your question centers, Moses' statement to Aaron immediately following the tragedy: "This is what G‑d spoke, saying: 'I shall be sanctified by those who are close to Me.'" Rashi, citing the Talmud and Midrash, explains the meaning behind these cryptic words:

Moses said to Aaron, "When G‑d said 'I shall be sanctified by those close to Me,' I thought it referred to me or you; now I see that they are greater than both of us."

Quite possibly Aaron was silent because he accepted his brother's view of how great his sons were, and more importantly how high a level they had achieved. Not so dissimilar from your comment that Moses could have comforted his brother by saying, "Your sons have gone to a better place."

What's the lesson in this for us?

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov said: "It is only due to the Almighty's great kindness that one remains alive after prayer."

Prayer is our way of transcending the mundane-ness of life and connecting to our essence and source: spirituality and G‑dliness. When a person truly achieves this closeness – when he truly prays – he can experience an attachment to G‑d of the magnitude that "took" the souls of Nadab and Abihu.

But, here's the caveat: G‑d has enabled and requires us to incorporate such incredible experiences within our daily, physical lives.

Following the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, G‑d informs us that the fire that burned in the pans of Nadab and Abihu – a metaphor for the fire of love that was ablaze within their hearts – was an "alien flame, which G‑d had not commanded." The Rebbe explains: though the Torah does not limit the closeness to G‑d attainable by man, we are empowered to accommodate, as live human beings, the very fire that consumed the souls of Nadab and Abihu.

TZAV: The Sin Offering

April 1, 2009

Joel Cohen's Question:

In exquisite and meticulous detail, the Parshah tells us the technicalities of sacrifice—and of "the guilt offering; it is most holy," which is brought for sins committed, both wittingly and unwittingly.

We are told of the blood ceremony; how the fat, the innards, the tail, the kidneys, the diaphragm, and the liver are to be offered up in smoke on the altar. Finally, we are told that every male priest may eat of it "in a holy place."

But where, and what about, the sinner who contributes the guilt offering? He becomes obliged to "confess" his guilt upon bringing the guilt offering.

Still, this doesn't make much sense. It does make sense that a person should confess his sin. But, if his act is unwitting, why should there be anything at all to confess? And if his act is intentional, why is it sufficient that he simply confess his sin? Shouldn't he also be required to repent? But yet, the Torah doesn't tell us that. Instead the Torah tells us of the need to confess sins that the sinner didn't intentionally do, and neglects to demand repentance for the ones he does intentionally.

Has the Torah become too enmeshed in the technicalities of the sacrifice itself, allowing the "meaning" of penitence to take a back seat?

Rabbi Adam Mintz Responds:

Joel, you have identified the fundamental issue of how one repents in the Jewish tradition.

Maimonides, in his quest to write an encyclopedia of Judaism law, addresses repentance in a separate set of laws at the beginning of his Mishneh Torah. In this work, he describes a three tiered approach to repentance. He writes that if a Jew sins, he/she must:

  1. Recognize the fact that he/she sinned.
  2. Regret the sin.
  3. Commit to never do it again

The Torah tells us that an integral part of the process of the korban (sacrifice) is the confession over the head of the animal. This highlights the fact that the korban is a part of the repentance process but not the whole thing. If a person sins in the time of the Temple, he must bring a sacrifice to the Temple. The bringing of the sin offering is the equivalent of Maimonides' first category: recognizing the sin. Then the sinner must place his hands on the head of the animal and confess the sin. This is the fulfillment of Maimonides' second category: regretting the sin. There is still one aspect of the process of repentance that the korban cannot achieve—that is the acceptance never to sin again. Of course, this is the most difficult part of the repentance process. It is easy to realize when you have sinned, and even to regret your actions. But, to commit to never doing it again? This requires a serious self-evaluation.

The Torah commands the bringing of the korban as the beginning of the process of repentance. It intentionally leaves out the final step in the process, for this last step cannot be accomplished through a korban given in a public setting. It can only be achieved through the private and serious consideration in which we encounter our inner selves.

Joel, the practice of sacrificing in the Temple is far removed from our lives in the twenty-first century. Yet, its message is as relevant to us today as it was when the Torah was given over 3,300 years ago.

Rabbi Eli Popack Responds:

There are essentially several parts to your questions. I will address each one individually.

a) What is the objective of a verbal confession?

The Sefer Hachinuch writes in his commentary to Mitzvah 364, the mitzvah requiring a verbal confession of sins:

"Through verbal confession of sin, the sinner reveals his thoughts and feelings, that he truly believes that all his deeds are revealed and known before G‑d, and that he will not continue acting as if "the Eye that sees" does not see. Furthermore, through mentioning the specific sin, he will feel remorseful about it, and he will be more careful on other occasions not to stumble again in similar fashion."

This demonstrates that the confession is an integral part of the repentance process, as the raised awareness of the sin and the accompanying shame propel one to a more sincere and enhanced level of repentance.

On a mystical level, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (1749-1866) writes in Derech Mitzvotecha that repentance is not only a means to gain forgiveness, but actually retroactively uproots and "undoes" the sin—and confession is a fundamental part of this process. Just as the sin was comprised of two elements, physical and emotional – namely, the physical wrongdoing and the passion that fueled it – the repentance also requires a physical and emotional manifestation. The heartfelt regret uproots the sinful passion, and the sinful deed is reversed through a physical deed of repentance, namely, confession (which requires the verbal enunciation performed by the lips).

b) Is there a point to confession if one did not repent?

Maimonides writes in the Law of Repentance:

"One is required to confess with one's lips and state verbally those things which he has resolved in his heart. If a person confesses verbally, but has not resolved in his heart to repent, it is comparable to one who immerses in a mikvah (purifying pool of water) while grasping a sheretz (a creature that transmits ritual impurity) in his hands."

It could be argued, however, that the confession does in fact have meaning even without the prerequisite repentance. Even an "insincere" confession helps a person feel uncomfortable and embarrassed, hopefully initiating the repentance process.

c) Is repentance itself a requirement of the Torah?

(The following is mostly quoted from an article by Naftali Silberberg, Do You Resent Being Told What To Do?—EP)

Maimonides writes, "If a person transgresses…he is required to confess before G‑d when he repents and returns from his sin." This wording seemingly implies that repentance is not the actual mitzvah; rather, repentance is the circumstance that triggers the mandatory mitzvah of confession.

Though the commentaries debate whether this is indeed Maimonides' intention with these words, the Minchat Chinuch maintains that repentance is indeed wholly optional. He posits that the Torah only requires us to confess if we repent, much as we are commanded to slaughter an animal if we desire to eat meat—but eating meat per se is not obligatory.

An understanding of the nature of teshuvah (repentance) sheds light on its anomalous nature.

Our relationship with G‑d seems to be scripted from the moment we rub our eyes open in the morning until the moment we shut them for the night. The tasks demanded by this relationship – all 613 of them – seemingly don't leave much room for improvisation, for impromptu and original outbursts of care and love. You want to compliment Him—great, you are just fulfilling your requirement to pray. You want to give Him something special, maybe a nice donation to the synagogue—nice, but you have just satisfied your obligation to give charity.

But in the parameters of a relationship, there's something special, a particular genuineness, about an unsolicited and unexpected act. It's a more accurate reflection of who you really are and what you really want to be doing. So where does that leave us with regards to our relationship with G‑d?

Luckily we do have the ability to express ourselves in the course of this all-important relationship. The uncharted part of our relationship is teshuvah. Accurately translated, teshuvah means "return." Teshuvah is about returning and reconnecting with one's inner self, one's very essence. At the core of every Jew there is a soul which is a burning coal of love for G‑d, a soul whose only desire is to connect to its Creator and serve Him dutifully. Connecting with one's true self, and thus revealing the awesome relationship which one shares with G‑d, automatically cleanses one of all sins, and is the starting point of a new chapter in life, a chapter dominated by new goals and priorities.

With this understanding, it is clear that teshuvah cannot be a commandment. Teshuvah is the ultimate expression of one's self—and following a command is not the truest expression of self.

d) Why does someone who has inadvertently sinned need to confess?

Generally speaking, sacrificial offerings were brought to atone for sins that were committed inadvertently. Why is someone who made an honest mistake required to repent, bring a sacrifice, and confess to an act done with no malicious intent?

The mystics explain that though the sin itself was committed unwittingly, the possibility for such an error is an indication that the individually is spiritually lacking; were he to be spiritually complete he would not even sin inadvertently, as the verse states: "A righteous individual will not happen upon iniquity" (Proverbs 12:21).

Inadvertent sin is a direct result of having allowed one's animalistic tendencies to get out of hand, for things that a person does without thinking tend to reflect that in which he is immersed, and where his true pleasure lies. The actions of a truly holy individual – even the unintentional ones – are good and holy; succumbing to evil – even inadvertently – is an indication that a person does not find his pleasure in goodness alone.

In summation, repentance is something that you do on your own initiative, but the Torah's requirement of confession provides the tools to get there efficiently.

Each week, Joel Cohen poses questions on the weekly Parshah (Torah reading). These questions are addressed by Rabbis Adam Mintz and Eli Popack.

About the Participants:
Joel Cohen, a former federal and state prosecutor, practices criminal defense law at a prominent NYC law firm, and is an Adjunct Professor of Professional Responsibility at Fordham Law School. He also authors a column at the New York Law Journal.

Rabbi Adam Mintz has served as a pulpit rabbi for over twenty years. He is an adjunct professor in Jewish History at Queens College, and lectures widely on a variety of topics. His weekly streaming video, “This Week in Jewish History,” is featured at rayimahuvim.org. Rabbi Mintz has recently published Jewish Spirituality and Divine Law (Ktav, 2005).

Rabbi Eli Popack grew up in South Africa, and is the founder and president of Map International, a socially responsible business engaged in Electronic Financial Infrastructure in Africa. In the summer he serves as spiritual guide to the Beach Minyan in Westhampton Beach, NY.