Who shall live

Since Passover, Diaspora Jews have been playing catch-up in terms of reading the Torah, That’s why there are four answers to the question of “What’s this week’s portion?” In the Diaspora, Leviticus 12-15 will be read, Tazria and Metzora; in Israel, it’s Leviticus 16-20, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim.

At first glance, these portions don’t share much. The former two are focused on ritual impurity, particularly that of the leper; the latter two are focused on the concept of holiness as a communal construct. Still, there is a striking similarity in two unusual offerings:

The priest shall order that two live clean birds and some cedar wood, scarlet yarn and hyssop be brought for the person to be cleansed. Then the priest shall order that one of the birds be slaughtered… After that, he is to release the live bird in the open fields. (Lev. 14:4-7)

Then he is to take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the entrance to the tent of meeting. He is to cast lots for the two goats—one lot for the Lord and the other for the scapegoat. Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the Lord and make it a sin-offering. But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord  The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness. (Lev. 16:7-22)

In each case, a pair of animals is taken, one to be slaughtered to God and the other, “the living one,” to be sent to the wilderness.

The Mishna makes the similarity all the more striking.

The two goats of Yom Kippur: their mitzva is until they be alike in appearance, height and value, and they are to be acquired at the same time. (Yoma 6:1)

The two birds: their mitzva is that they be alike in appearance, height and value, and they are to be acquired at the same time. (Nega’im 14:5).

In fact, the other elements of the leper’s purification also pop up in the Yom Kippur service, as the High Priest is purified with a hyssop during the preceding week, the bowl used for casting the lots is made of a type of cedar wood, and scarlet yarn is tied on the scapegoat’s horns.

In each case, the symbolism is clear, as the purification process, for the individual leper and for the community on Yom Kippur, represents a transition from a deathlike state to life in its fullest sense. The leper, once considered like a corpse, returns to the world of the living; the sinner, once guilty and condemned, now has a clean slate.

This seems to be a fitting message for the week in which Israel’s Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Terror Victims and its Independence Day both fall. Two birds, two goats, two citizens– “alike in appearance, height and value.” One dies to sanctify God’s name; the other, “the living one,” is released in the field. Why is one slaughtered and one saved? Why is the blood of one spilled, while the other is freed? Why do the lots fall the way they do?

We can’t hope to know. We can only honor those who are among the dead and celebrate with those who are among the living. And remember.

About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.
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