Men (and Women) of the Moment — in the Parasha and at the Protests (16)
This is my sixteenth consecutive post connecting the weekly parasha to Israel’s pro-democracy demonstrations.
The first of this week’s double parasha, Aharei mot-Kedoshim, describes what will happen on Yom Kippur, when Aaron removes all Israel’s sins and purges the Tent of Meeting and the Holy of Holies of a year’s accumulated uncleanness (Leviticus 16).
At the start of the procedure, Aaron will bathe and put on special clothing made entirely of linen. These garments – a kind of protective clothing – will be contaminated by the uncleanness he’s removing, and at the end he’ll leave them in the Tent of Meeting (Leviticus 16:4).
Some of what follows is standard fare for priestly sacrifices, but one ritual stands out. Echoing the curious cleansing involving two birds described in last week’s parasha (Leviticus 14:1-8), Aaron is instructed to take two male goats, one to be sacrificed and one – chosen by lot – to be kept alive and dispatched into the wilderness ‘for Azazel’ (Leviticus 16:7-10).
Commentators have speculated about who or what Azazel signifies here, but the role of the goat is clear. Aaron will lay his hands on its head and make known Israel’s sins, thus ‘putting them on the head of the goat’. The goat will then be sent into the desert ‘in the hands of a designated man [ish itti] (Leviticus 16:21).
It’s possible that the designated man’s task was to merely to stand at the entrance to the camp and liberate the goat, but this seems unlikely. A few verses later, it’s specified that he must wash his clothes and bathe before he can re-enter the camp (Leviticus 16:26). This means that he left the camp. Plausibly, he drove the goat far away to make sure it didn’t wander back into the camp along with all Israel’s freshly purged sins.
The Hebrew word itti, translated here ‘designated’, is difficult. Since it doesn’t appear elsewhere in the Bible, we can’t draw on other contexts to help determine its meaning. It’s connected to a Hebrew root meaning ‘time’, leading some translators to favor ‘timely’. This man, apparently not a priest, came along at precisely the right time to execute a crucial task for Israel’s continued existence and the sustainability of the sacrificial system. He was the man of the moment, we might say.
Yet the sense that ‘timely’ implies of chance, of having happened to be in the right place at the right time, may be misleading. It’s unlikely that a man was wandering aimlessly around in the vicinity of the Tent of Meeting on the very day that the High Priest was removing Israel’s sins.
Added to that, the job was potentially undesirable, even dangerous. Aaron needed protective clothing, partly perhaps to protect himself from a divine threat (c.f., Exodus 28:35), but presumably also because transgression was contaminating. This would explain why Aaron had to leave his linen garments inside the Tent of Meeting afterwards, and bathe before he came out to make the burnt offerings (Leviticus 16:23-24).
The designated man also had to wash his clothes and his body before re-entering the camp (v.26), suggesting that he too was exposed to contamination. And if he was indeed required to shepherd the goat far enough into the wilderness that it couldn’t come back to the camp, he was also exposed to other dangers. He could have suffered from heat or cold, run out of food or water, or been attacked by wild animals. There was a risk that, like the goat, he too would not return to the camp.
Who would have chosen this job, or allowed himself to be in the right place at the right time to be designated? Someone, perhaps, with a strong inner call. But we can’t rule out that the ‘designated man’ did not choose the job at all, but was chosen by lot, goral. This is how the goat itself was chosen. It also has parallels to ancient Athenian ostracism, in which citizens selected a human scapegoat by writing names on ostraca, pottery shards. The chosen man would endure a temporary symbolic exile intended to promote democracy and political stability.
More pertinently, although lots most often appear in the Bible in relation to land and property, the allotment of portions, they also reflect the idea that a person’s time has come. In the book of Jonah, the sailors draw lots to determine which man they should throw overboard to avert the storm, and the lot fell on Jonah (Jonah 1:7).
Regarding the infrastructure for the rebuilt Temple, the book of Nehemiah identifies lots as a mechanism for guaranteeing a perpetual wood supply.
We have also cast lots among the priests, the Levites, and the people for the wood offering, to bring it into the house of our God, by ancestral houses, at appointed times, year by year, to burn on the altar of the Lord our God, as it is written in the law (Nehemiah 10:34).
In Nehemiah, lots determined the appointed times, ittim ha’muzmanim, when someone was obliged to bring wood to the Temple. Perhaps the designated or ‘timely’ man, ish itti, in our parasha was likewise someone whose time had come.
This past motzei Shabbat, I was walking to the weekly demonstration with my friends Naomi and Jonathan. Jonathan stopped to speak to someone he knew, one of the demonstration organizers. Jonathan’s friend is not a professional demonstration organizer or even a full-time activist. He’s not a politician or running for political office. Yet since the demonstrations began, he’s worked practically non-stop on the demonstrations. It’s holy work, we all agreed.
Jonathan’s friend and many other men and women like him are working tirelessly on our behalf. We just need to show up. Were they in the right place at the right time to be roped in by friends and colleagues? Did they respond to strong inner calls to defend Israel’s democracy? I don’t know, but they are truly the men and women of this moment.