Sacrifice, Repentance and Memory

The scapegoat sent into the wilderness. ‘ And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the life goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all of their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness. ‘ Leviticus, chapter XVI. Tinted version. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***


What do we think about during the Ten Days of Repentance? What does it mean to return שובה to God? During these liminal days between Rosh Hashana, I experienced the death and funerals of four people close to us (two of whom were my husband’s childhood friends from Nebraska), one the father-in-law of a congregant, and the fourth, a member of our congregation). All of these were people we knew well. Three of the funerals were on zoom and the last funeral was live, in our local cemetery. One of our closest friends was to officiate at that funeral. The night before, he celebrated his 80th with a big affair organized by his children and grandchildren.  Coincidentally my nephew celebrated his 50th in an intimate setting with his sister, nieces, nephews and his mother, my sister. And Rosh Hashanah is the date of my brother-in-law’s yahrzeit. Tomorrow night, erev erev Yom Kippur we will round this off with another transitional event, the wedding of another one of our dear friends’ grand-daughter.


Besides eating, praying, and reading the torah on Rosh Hashanah, I do a lot of reflecting. Death is a subject that comes up often in our liturgy. The funeral we attended was that of a beloved doctor in the community and the turnout at the cemetery was an impressive combination of her colleagues, family, patients and friends from all over the country. The overflow of cars lined outside all the way down the road reflected how dear she was to the greater community. Among other personal memories, she was the last person to speak to my mother in the hospital, before she died 22 years ago. I still remember what she told me then when she came to pay a shiva call—she said “your mother told me with her eyes, that she was ready to go.” And from that, the doctor understood that she was not to perform any last-minute heroic deeds to keep her alive. This was a hospital setting, not a hospice, and I was touched then by her humanity.

Humanity is what characterizes Soroka Hospital and after the funeral I sat with the first dean of the medical school, who spoke movingly at the funeral and who came on Aliyah to the Negev the same year we moved to Omer in 1974. All the doctors who studied at the medical school of Ben Gurion University were taught not to forget that they were compassionate beings first and scientists second when treating patients. I sat on the admissions committee that chose applicants for the medical school and two people always interviewed the candidates. One person was a ben adam, a lay person and the other a professional. Each of us had an equal say in the choice of the candidate. I saw many of these professionals with whom I interviewed at the funeral. The doctor who was being buried was one of the people I sat with and who was one of the chairs of the committee. All of the eulogies emphasized her humanity; there was no need to bring up her professional accomplishments—everyone there knew about them.

While thinking about people passing away, their legacies, the sacrifices they make for their careers, and transitions such as death, birthdays and weddings, I also thought about the major transitions our children and grandchildren go through when they graduate high school.


A month before my son went into the IDF in 1989, I was in the U.S. staying with my sister. I always had jet lag and either read or wrote in the middle of the night. Right before I went to sleep, I wrote a poem. I genuinely don’t remember the reason why I wrote it. In the morning, when I woke up, I showed it to my sister (who was a psychiatric social worker). She read it and blurted out, “oh this is no doubt about Tzvika, who’s going into the army next month.” I was floored by this comment; I reread it through her eyes and replied, “Speaking about the unconscious!” So, I rewrote it, played around with the biblical references, gave it a title, “Akeda Revisited,” and sent it off to the Journal Judaism which published it in 1991. (The poem is reprinted below). In those days, I didn’t have a list of publications, so it was thrilling to be in print. A few years later, it was the basis for  “A Feminist Mother’s Prayer,” for a soldier going off to the army, and it appeared in a book, Jewish Mothers Tell Their Stories. I ended this prayer by writing:

How do I, a feminist with pacifist leanings, send you off?   With ambivalence, with love, with fear, with pride, with support, with the knowledge that whatever you do we will be there for you.    Lech lecha be‑shalom; Hazor be‑shalom.  Go in peace.  Come back safely.

After my children finished with the army, I hoped that by the time my grandchildren would be old enough, there would no longer be a need for the army. No such luck, since my second grandson is in the army and the third is on his way. But life, with all of its sacrifices, transitions and despite funerals goes on, and in couple of days we celebrate Yom Kippur.

The Scapegoat’, 1856, (circa 1950). Scene inspired by the Bible: a goat on the salty shore of the Dead Sea at Osdoom with the mountains of Edom in the distance. The ‘scapegoat’ embodies the sins of the congregation – Hunt saw the Old Testament scapegoat as a parallel to the New Testament Christ whose suffering and death similarly expunged the sins of humans. Painting in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool. From The Outline of Art, edited by Sir William Orpen. [George Newnes Limited, London, circa 1950]. Artist William Holman Hunt. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

On the two days of Rosh Hashana, we read about what I consider the two sacrifices of Abraham’s sons (Ishmael and Isaac) . On Yom Kippur, we will read about another two sacrifices: one of the seir la’azazel—or the scapegoat that is chosen to bear our sins and sent off to the desert (like Ishmael) and the other who (according to some readings of the Akedah story in the midrash and prayers we recite on Rosh Hashana) is actually sacrificed (like Isaac). Some of the piyyutim understand that Isaac has been sacrificed and because of him we beseech God to expiate OUR sins. Along these lines is a midrash that says something similar, except that here it is Esau who is expelled. The rabbis make the connection with the seir (the goat) and Esau’s being hairy (the word there too is seir). They write that Esau sinned all year round and does not repent, unlike Jacob who also sins all year round but (unlike Esau) does repent.

Isaac-R. Levi said: This may be illustrated by two men, one possessing a thick head of hair and the other bald-headed, who stood near a threshing-floor. When the chaff flew into the locks of the former, it became entangled in his hair; but when it flew on to the head of the bald man, he passed his hand over his head and removed it. Even so, the wicked Esau is polluted by sin throughout the year and has no place to go to procure forgiveness, whereas Jacob is defiled by sin throughout the year, but has the Day of Atonement wherewith to procure forgiveness (Bereshit Rabbah 65:15).

So we have two sets of brothers who are contrasted. Esau and Jacob and Ishmael and Isaac. But there is another set of brothers who are referred to in passing at the beginning of the torah reading for Yom Kippur, which begins, “And God spoke to Moses, after the death of his two sons, אחרי מות who [because they] got too close to God, died” (Lev 16:1).

Sacrifice is at the center of the Yom Kippur torah reading and the ceremony is movingly described:

And from the Israelite community he shall take two he-goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. Aaron is to offer his own bull of sin offering, to make expiation for himself and for his household. Aaron shall take the two he-goats and let them stand before the Lord at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the Lord and the other marked for Azazel. Aaron shall bring forward the goat designated by lot for the Lord, which he is to offer as a sin offering; while the goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be left standing alive before the Lord, to make expiation with it and to send it off to the wilderness for Azazel (Leviticus 16:5- 12).


All of this takes place at the entrance of the Tent and there are no witnesses, except for God. It is purely by chance who is chosen; there are no criteria in this; it is by lot!  One is chosen and the other is not; one is sacrificed and the other is sent off to wander, to die, to possibly thrive, or whatever happens to someone who goes off to the wilderness. After all, we the Israelites also wandered in the desert for 40 years!!!

And what or who is Azazel? In modern day Hebrew l’azazel is a curse word (mah l’azazel karah? What in heck happened?) It could mean the goat that escaped, hence scapegoat! The commentator Ibn Ezra thinks it is a demon that lives in the wilderness. Or if you take away the second letter zayin, you have az el (a strong God) or the hills where God dwells. Is he pushed off the hill? Does he survive? At any rate, the goat goes to some uncivilized place, either to continue living or perhaps as the great bible commentator Ramban (Nachmanides 1194-1270) hints, the goat is given as a gift to the demon Samael as a bribe, so he won’t cancel out the benefits of our sending out the goat who serves as expiation for our sins.

Ramban writes that Samael saw that there weren’t any sinners on Yom kippur. He said to God, you have a united people in the land (am echad ba-aretz). The Israelites are like the angels: On Yom Kippur they are both barefoot, don’t eat or drink. The people stand up all day on their legs; they are peaceful, without sin, exactly like the angels. And God hears their prayers and accepts their sacrifices. But then Ramban goes on and hints at various things which he calls secrets (sod). He does not spell anything out, but makes it clear that there are some things which we cannot so easily understand, like shatnez the prohibition against wearing clothes made of a mixture of wool and linen, the law of the Red Heifer, and the goat that is sent away. Ramban ends this very long section by saying:

I cannot explain more, for I would have to close the mouths of those who claim to be wise in the study of nature, following after that Greek [philosopher Aristotle] who denied everything except that which could be perceived by him [through the physical senses], and he, and his wicked disciples, were so proud as to suspect or think that whatever he could not conceive of through his reasoning is not true!

The commentator on the Ramban writes as follows:

The attitude of these philosophers, who claimed that whatever their minds could not understand was untrue, was especially obnoxious to Ramban. History has fully borne him out on this matter, for there are literally myriads of matters which the Medieval scholastics, conditioned as they were by Aristotelian concepts of the universe, considered impossible, and are now proven facts. And who can foretell the future of our present-day concepts of the universe? There are obviously facts which lie beyond the present-day grasp of the human mind, which will someday become firmly established. To deny their possibility just because we do not understand them, was to Ramban a manifestation of arrogance.

Although I tend not to agree with the Ramban when he gets mystical, we are in a liminal period when we hope against hope that life will get better; that our sins will be expiated. We hope for the best, despite the horrendous things going on in the world (the floods in Florida, Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, the war against women in Iran). We try our best and we even ask that whatever promises (vows) that we made during the previous year be annulled so that we can have a clean slate for the new year. One day a year I am willing to engage in a “suspension of disbelief”, to suspend my normal rational way of thinking.  And in this spirit, I share with you the poem I wrote many years ago.


Choose!  Bechor[1]


I am what I am![2]

You are what you are!

Why choose?

I have put before you

Life and Death,

Blessing and Curse.

Choose Life‑‑

If you and your offspring would live.[3]

One for Life.

One for Death.

My sons! I can not.

The knife, the Agony.

The pain, again

To choose.

Father?  God?  Son?

I lived.  Why?

To choose!


You must!

It is not choice if I must.

To choose is to die.

Two nations are in [her] womb.

Two separate peoples…

One people shall be mightier than the other.

And the older shall serve the younger.[4]

It is not the practice in our place

To prefer the younger over the elder.[5]

Give up one.

Divide your heart.

This is my son, the live one.

I am he.

Or am I the dead one‑‑

Lost, abandoned,

On the altar,

On the way to the knife.

A sword was brought before him.

To cut the live child in two.

One shall rule.[6]


I shall choose love.

Let it be.

Give the live child to her.

There will be no glory for you

That the choice will be

In the hands of a woman.[7]

Do not put him to death.

She is his mother.[8]

Choose well my dear.

There are no returns

When destiny means choice.

Send him off if you can.

My son, our sons.


    [1]In Hebrew behor בחור is to choose; bechor בכור is the elder.  Different roots and sounds, yet…

    [2]Exodus 3:14

    [3]Deut. 30:19

    [4]Gen. 25:22-23

    [5]Gen. 29:26

    [6]I Kings 3:22-26

    [7]Judges 4:9

    [8]I Kings 3:27

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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