November 11, 2019

Weekly Parsha: Acharei Mot

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

Acharei Mot.

The he-goat shall thus carry upon itself all their sins to a precipitous land, and he shall send off the he-goat into the desert.

Leviticus 16:22


Kylie Ora Lobell

Jewish Journal contributing writer

Today, it’s hard for us to understand the meaning of sacrifices. As an animal lover who has two dogs, five chickens and a tortoise, it would certainly be rough for me to participate in animal sacrifice. I’m sure when the third Temple comes, however, it’ll be a huge honor to participate in animal sacrifice and see it in all its beauty.

Because we’re still waiting for that time, this verse symbolizes something that we do have: teshuvah, repentance. The he-goat represents our sins, and when we send him into the desert, we are letting go of our past wrongdoings. There are some people who believe they have wronged so much in the past that they are “damaged.” They incorrectly think they can never fix themselves or improve.

HaShem offers us a chance, through teshuvah, to be forgiven of our sins and move on. We can step away from our pasts and only move forward into the future. We can let those sins wander off into the desert, and live our lives as brand-new, sin-free individuals. We don’t have to think of ourselves as bad people. We can pledge to do better, let go of the baggage and be free, which is an incredible gift from above.


Michelle Stone

Shalom Hartman Institute
of North America

Is it really possible for us to place our sins onto a living creature and send those sins into the wilderness, off our backs, forever? The biblical Yom Kippur ritual of expiating sin by sending the “scapegoat” to the wilderness seems to suggest so.

Maimonides explains that physical transfer is not actually possible, but the ritual is essential nonetheless. He writes, “There is no doubt that sins cannot be carried like a burden … these ceremonies are of a symbolic character, and serve to impress people with a certain idea, and to induce them to repent — as if to say, we have freed ourselves of our previous deeds, have cast them behind our backs, and removed them from us as far as possible.”

Maimonides identifies a concept inherent in our ritual-rich tradition: the role of ritual in inspiring behavioral change. Research shows that rituals can be beneficial in multiple ways, including improving attention, enhancing confidence or emotional stability or providing motivation. Maimonides suggests that we may need to connect ritual performance to our desire to repent in order to change our ways.

The grand spectacle of witnessing our sins leaving for the wilderness can convince us that they have actually left for good. While this particular ritual is no longer practiced, it is worthwhile to investigate the abundance of personal and communal rituals in the Jewish tradition (and there are plenty) to tease out what it is about these rituals that can help us be our best selves.


Rabbi Marc D. Angel

Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals

Elias Canetti, a Sephardic Jew who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1981, describes the impact of a “sting.” We are hurt or insulted by someone. We are demeaned and without power to defend ourselves. Canetti states that these stings remain forever. They haunt us throughout our lives. If we are wise, we learn to control them. But if we are not so strong internally, we seek revenge. We look for other ways to relieve ourselves of the pain of the stings.

Many stings are self-inflicted. We make terrible mistakes. We sin against God, against ourselves, against others. We later feel remorse … but the stings don’t go away. We cannot undo the past errors; but allowing them to fester within us is painful and destructive.

The Torah describes a strange ritual involving the sending of a scapegoat to perdition. The goat symbolically carries the sins of Israel. Maimonides pointed out that “sins cannot be carried like a burden and taken off the shoulder of one being to be laid on that of another being. But these ceremonies are of a symbolic character … as if to say, we have freed ourselves of our previous deeds …” (“Guide of the Perplexed,” 3:46).

That ancient ceremony served to relieve people of their stings, freeing them from living in constant guilt and self-doubt. It was a vivid way of demonstrating to the Israelites: You can get past your sins and errors; you can overcome your stings. You can be cleansed.


Erica Rothblum

Head of School, Pressman Academy

We read here about the second of two goats. To understand the scapegoat, we must look at the two goats as a pair. The first goat was sacrificed to God. In modern Judaism, the sacrifice of this goat is replaced by prayer to God; in other words, instead of killing a goat, we pray fervently for forgiveness for the sins between us and God.

This second goat was sent into the wilderness with the sins of the people on its head. While we no longer send out a goat, so too must the scapegoat be replaced by the more modern act. The rabbis teach us it is our duty to take responsibility for all those sins we commit ben adam lechavero, the sins between man and his fellow human. There are those who, like Adam and Eve, sin and blame another. There are those who sin and respond with anger, like Cain. And there are those who take responsibility, who repent, who bravely look into their friends’ eyes and say, “I made a mistake and I am sorry.”

According to Maimonides, the truest form of repentance occurs when someone has not only publicly confessed his or her sin and sought atonement but has subsequently found himself or herself in a similar situation and has refrained from sinning. It is our responsibility to actively take responsibility when we have done wrong and to make it right again.


Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes

Interfaith Chaplain

It’s one thing to dispense with my wrongdoings, to splay the truths of my vice, blood and sinew, showering guilt in four directions until I am cleansed of them. Although I am taken aback by my ancestors’ brutish sacrifices, is there something grotesquely pleasing at the prospect of canceling my own badness through butchering naive animals? Oy.

The sacrifices surrounding our verse feel like hotheaded rage. Like a good scream or smacks to the punching bag. Savagery. And while I’m a person who’s compassionate and tender with animals, I still thank God that the Torah dictates animals, and not human beings, should be objects of purgation. Perhaps that’s the point.

Every time I stroke the head of an animal such as a cat or a dog — even a goat at the fair — I am passionately mindful that this is God’s creation. It will lift an innocent head, letting me run my fingers through its musky fur. It bays approvingly at the attention. I imagine being the Kohen, laying hands upon a trusting beast, intending to mark it with kavanah — with holy intent — transferring upon it all of Israel’s iniquities. But instead of the usual slaughter and splatter routine, I’m enjoined by Torah to let this one go. A reflection of me; alive, warm, coursing with dutiful blood. Confused and not altogether expectant. I am not unlike the wilderness that receives me. Spared, but banished in some nameless backcountry, I quietly face my creator with burdens. Truth. Mine. Not mine.