Parshat Acharei Mot – Kedoshim: Somewhere, Far, Far Away
Recently, I heard a funny reality about anyone who returns home from the International Space Station. Apparently, people who are there develop new habits for mundane life. They spend so much time there that the earth habits don’t work for them anymore. For example, when they finish using something, they will simply let go of it. It’s the correct thing to do in space, in a zero gravity environment. The pen you’re using will simply suspend in front of you, and you can grab it again when you need it. Putting anything away involves locking it down, not placing it down. It makes perfect sense on the ISS, but fails miserably back on Earth. Apparently, once home, the habit persists, and astronauts simply let go of things after they use them, only to remember, too late, that the thing will now fall and break. It’s a step back in time to that moment when, as toddlers, we all spent hours dropping cutlery off the table in order to watch it fall. Clearly, we were testing whether it would fall this time again. Past behaviour does not necessarily indicate present behaviour so, as toddlers, we’re not learning about gravity, we’re learning to trust gravity.
The next step in our understanding of the world, is to move from trusting the laws of nature around us, to learning how our strength can cause interactions within the world itself. Once we trust gravity, we begin to play the ‘roll the ball to me’ game. We start to understand that our strength can move the ball through space, so how strongly do I have to push the ball to get it to move? How much stronger do I have to push it so it moves out of my reach, and how much strength do I need to get it to move all the way to you. It all starts because I trust to let something go and watch if it hangs around.
This week, there are two Torah readings: Acharei Mot, and Kedoshim. Within the readings is a description of letting go of something very important. It is what modern western culture calls ‘the scapegoat’.
Webster’s Dictionary defines a scapegoat as something that “bears the blame for others”. In other words, I need to blame someone for something, and because I don’t know who to blame (or can’t find them), I’ll randomly choose someone else to blame, and then punish them as if they really did it. It serves my need to lay blame and accountability on…anything at all, as long as it’s not me. It has nothing to do with justice or rationale, it is not a moment of balance or closure, it simply allows me to designate blame so I feel vindicated and powerful. That is how it has manifested through human history. That is not what the Torah is describing.
The Torah talks of a ritual performed by the High Priest. Two goats are chosen at random. By drawing lots, the priest will determine which one is designated for holy ritual and which one is to be cast away. The goat for holy ritual will be slaughtered while the one designated to be cast away will symbolically bear all the sins and negative emotions of the community. It will then be sent into the wilderness. From the goat’s perspective it’s quite simple: the ‘holy’ one dies and the ‘scapegoat’ is set free. Let’s guess which one we’d prefer to be.
The purpose of the scapegoat is not to find something to blame, it’s to find a mechanism that rids me of all the things that haunt me. It is sent into the wilderness, looking like every other goat, so that no one could ever find it, punish it, or be impacted by it. Everything inside me that could hurt me, or hurt others, has now found its way outside of me, and is put where it can’t find root, grow, or trigger others. It becomes powerless and neutral.
Both of these goats give me elevated expression. One participates in the ancient language of sacrifice, and will end by feeding me, my family and my community. The other goat teaches me to find a mechanism where my past mistakes, and my potentially destructive emotions, can find a release and do no harm. The Torah isn’t insisting we find goats, it’s insisting we find mechanisms.
In the end, we’ve all returned from the International Space Station and we can choose whether we want every mistake we’ve ever made to hang around us or not. Once we know we don’t want to be haunted with these things, we move to trusting there is a mechanism that works for us, and exploring how much strength we need to move these things away from us, far enough away where they can’t ever hurt anyone. I not only choose how much strength I need to roll the ball away from me, I must also choose if I’ve aimed it at anyone.