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    Scapegoats – Acharei Mot

    Most of Acharei Mot deals with Yom Kippur, including the scapegoat who bore the people’s sins into the wilderness.

    Sending out the Scapegoat, by William J Webb, 1904

    The original phrase was “escape goat”. The word “escape” itself is probably linked with “cape”; to escape was, says Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary, “to slip out of one’s cape”.

    Critics dislike the idea of piling sins upon an innocent goat and sending out of sight and out of mind, but the goat was symbolic of rapid transport – sinners wanted to cast their sins as far away and as quickly as they could.

    This could not replace penitence; only when one regretted the sin and determined not to repeat it, would a person want to send the sin off into the distance.

    Scapegoats are too common in human culture.

    Adam sinned; the scapegoat was his wife: “The woman gave me the fruit”. Eve blamed the serpent: “The serpent enticed me and I ate”.

    We don’t know the serpent’s excuse, but he too must have found someone to blame.

    The Talmud has a story about Elazar ben Durdaya (AZ 17a).

    After leaving the path of Torah he wanted the mountains to speak up for him, then the heavens and earth, the sun and moon, the stars and planets.

    Why had he sinned?

    The mountains were too hard to climb, heaven was too high, the earth was booby-trapped, the sun and moon (i.e. the weather) were against him, his stars were unfavourable.

    Finally he realised: Ein hadavar talu’i ela bi – “it was no-one’s fault but mine!”

    He sat with his head between his knees and wept aloud until his soul departed.

    We are all tempted to blame scapegoats; in the end we know that what we make of our lives depends on ourselves.

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