When I studied the History of Art as an undergraduate, I recall a drawing (I don’t remember the artist) of a “Scapegoat” surrounded by fumes, and Aaron, the High Priest, sending it off alone into the desert. The ritual is found in the traditional scriptural reading in synagogues on Yom Kippur morning (see Leviticus 16:10, 21-22).
It was a powerful image showing how a hapless goat was believed to absorb and carry away the transgressions of an entire people thereby leaving the community relieved of its sins and guilt. This transference was affected through the hands of the High Priest that gathered and held all the people’s character flaws, destructive sinful obsessions of jealousy, envy, pride, lust, egotism, rage, revenge, cynicism, and guilt. The innocent goat was exiled to a place called Azazel (now understood to be the Kidron Valley just south of Jerusalem’s Old City walls) and is the origin of the notion of “scapegoating” a despised “other,” a phenomenon, of course, not at all based on the character of the innocent “other” but rather on the projection and transference of the community’s evil inclinations.
In the rabbinic period that formally began after the destruction of the 2nd Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, the rabbis taught (based on the moral preaching of the biblical prophets) that greater moral, psychological, and spiritual accountability was required to effect change and bring about societal renewal. They taught that the most constructive and effective ways for the community and individuals to cope with and transcend their negative drives and emotions include a return to God, Torah, community, and self (t’shuvah), self-judgment (shifut atzmi), forgiveness (s’lichah), memory of the virtues of our forebears (zich’ronot), fasting (tzom), various other kinds of physical self-denial (hach’chashah atzmit), deeds of loving-kindness (g’milut chasadim) and simply loving others (ahavah) by virtue of the religious truth that all human beings are created in the Divine image (b’tzelem Elohim) and thus embody infinite value and worth. Those who take seriously these principles and virtuous behaviors clean the moral grime away covering the soul, heretofore existing in darkness, to shine into the world and for our people to become a light to the nations (or lagoyim – Isaiah 60:3).
In Ray Bradbury’s complex allegorical tale of good and evil, Something Wicked This Way Comes (the title’s origin derives from Shakespeare’s Macbeth – Act IV, Scene I – in a phrase spoken by a witch who knows something bad is coming because there’s a tingling sensation in her thumbs), the author describes the disappearance and re-emergence of “an old almost forgotten dog,” reminiscent of the Levitical scapegoat:
“Some time every year that dog, good for many months, just ran on out into the world and didn’t come back for days and finally did limp back all burred and scrawny and odorous of swamps and dumps; he had rolled in the dirty mangers and foul dropping places of the world, simply to turn home with a funny little smile pinned to his muzzle. Dad named the dog Plato, the wilderness philosopher, for you saw by his eyes there was nothing he didn’t know. Returned, the dog would live in innocence again, tread patterns of grace, for months, then vanish, and the whole thing start over.” (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962, pages 78-79)
Both Leviticus and Something Wicked assume the existence of a harsh, corrupt, cynical, morally disheartening, and soul-crushing world against which humankind must cope to morally survive and renew itself. I need not detail the evidence nor the pain experienced by so many this past year. They are far too numerous to list. Much of it, of course, is human-induced and consequently we bear the responsibility of our actions and inaction.
The hapless scapegoat and the bruised wandering dog are concrete reminders that humankind is far from adequately evolved emotionally, psychologically, morally, and spiritually, and that we individuals, the Jewish community, and humankind have a long way to go to responsibly purge ourselves of our destructive obsessions, impulses, and actions.
The High Holidays, thankfully, arrive annually to reengage us (if we haven’t been doing so throughout the year) in the necessary inner restorative work that enables the full flowering of the virtues of humility, appreciation, generosity, justice, kindness, love, and peace.
May these Ten Days of T’shuvah (return, turning) and Yom Kippur be a time of reflection, self-criticism, commitment to do better, and renewal.
G’mar chatimah tovah.