Please enjoy a D’var Torah this week from Miryam Bernard-Donals, Rosh Atzmayim 2016. Miryam, a graduate of the University of Iowa, currently works at the Madison Jewish Day School. A native of Madison, WI, and lifelong Ramahnik, this is Miryam’s third summer on staff.
Reflections on Parashat Acharei Mot
by Miryam Bernard-Donals
In this week’s parashah, Acharei Mot, God instructs Moses to tell Aaron what he should do as the high priest to atone for his sins and the sins of his people. The framework of a day of atonement is presented and I was surprised that the description of the scapegoat was the most familiar concept to me. The scapegoat bears the sins of the people and is sent out into the wilderness to live and carry out the burden of said sins for the rest of its days.
I have heard the phrase “scapegoat” throughout my life and always thought it was a bit strange. Why a goat? I always wondered if it might not be more efficient as a scape-horse, or scape-cheetah… something that would escape a bit faster and more assuredly. But no, take my sins, please, goat, and clomp off with them somewhere to hang around a dumpster and eat a tin can and an old shoe.
I wondered where this idea of a convenient “out” for our mistakes/bad choices/sins had come from. It is so familiar and relatable to want to avoid owning our own problems, and so tempting to put them on someone or something else and send them a-trotting. It is comforting that we can trace this experience of the desire to bestow our sins on something and send them away all the way back to Biblical times. It makes it feel human. And I believe it is.
In Biblical times and even now this was not just “an easy out.” Our season of repentance begins with Rosh Chodesh Elul and we stew in our sins for a whole month, all the way through to Rosh HaShanah when we perform the ritual of tashlich, casting our sins (in the form of bread crumbs) into the closest body of water. It is only then that we send our sins packing (or quacking. Oh, those poor overfed ducks.)
Just like the Israelites, we are human. We have doubts, fears, and make mistakes. I remember making mistakes as a camper, like unintentionally hurting someone’s feelings. But it was in making those mistakes in a safe space like camp, my cabin, or with my counselors or close friends, where processing and apologizing happened, that I learned the most about… well….being human.
In Acharei Mot, the Israelites are given another chance at redeeming themselves and to learn from their mistakes. I believe it is the recognizing of our faults and sins, and experiencing them as they are, processing them, atoning for them and THEN sending them away – in the stomachs of ducks, on the backs of goats, or in the form of lessons learned – that we stay healthy and grow.