Parashat Acharei Mot – Leviticus 16:1-18:30

by David L. Cohen, Director of Congregational Learning

The reading of Parashat Acharei Mot at the same time we prepare for our Passover Seder, provides a unique opportunity to examine the themes we have had with us for the past few months.  During this time we have been reading about numerous ritual practices which are all meant to bring us closer to God and closer to holiness.  Many of us often struggle with making that connection between holiness and ritual.  What is it about this or that ritual that can actually bring me to a heightened sense of sacredness?  What is it about these behaviors that can make me a better person?

Another ritual is presented in this week’s reading that may actually be a tool to help us see the connection better.   We read this week of the “scapegoat.”  This was the ritual practice by which Aaron, or the high priest, is to assign the sins of the people of Israel to a goat and let it run away.  Specifically it was supposed to run off a cliff.  While one goat is sacrificed to God, one is sent to “Azazel.”  This is the “scapegoat” we know of in modern terminology – the idea that a group of people or person is blamed for the sins of others or blamed for illusory wrong doing.  One can wonder if the dated term, “Go Jump of a cliff” which essentially means “go to he##!” can be attributed to this portion as well.  In fact it is believed that the term Azazel is a term that could be used for a place where evil dwells or the more conventional “hell.”.

But why are these concepts more than curiosities, especially during this time of Pesach?  Well, during this time of the year, a number of ideas come into confluence.  Passover is time of ritual and a time of big ideas.  It is a time of using tradition and ritual to teach our children, but it is also a time to examine big concepts like Freedom, Liberation, Slavery, Redemption, Exodus, and Journeys to a Promised land.  It should be no wonder that a great deal of Christian liturgy and especially Baptist ideology focuses on these themes and this story from the Bible.  There are Kings, Empires, Slaves, Liberation stories and stories about Freedom.  These are concepts that can motivate action and community consciousness toward good and at the same time, they are concepts that can lead one to ask very important questions about our own personal responsibility for larger community behavior.  And then, lo and behold, in the 49 days following Passover  that lead us to Shavuot, Sinai, and redemption from Slavery, we are to count the Omer and look deep into ourselves for the behavior that can make us behave better toward one another.

Many believe that before we can do the hard work of asking hard questions of ourselves – hard questions about both big and very personal behaviors – we need to almost have another Yom Kipur.  The scapegoat may be that very conceptual ritual we need to let go of our sins, to say goodbye to those evils that will stand in the way of true self-reflection.   If we were to still hang on to those sins they would consume us.  How could we really take an honest look at our behavior if we were still ashamed of certain things or still hung up on this decision or that.  But that does mean that the scapegoat relieves us of the responsibility to address the behaviors behind those sins.

When the scapegoat runs off that cliff, we still have work to do.  We are not off the hook.  We have to ask serious questions about liberation, freedom, and slavery – and our role in all those concepts – and then spend the 49 days of the counting of the Omer reflecting on the specific elements of our behavior that will lead to a more holy person, a more just society and a community that has moved closer to God than the year before.  For the new year, we mark the time of new beginnings.  For the march toward Sinai that begins immediately after Pesach, we mark the moment we were given the tools, the rituals and the concepts that make that yearly re-birth possible.  Together with letting the scapegoat run away with our sins so that we can do the work of personal growth, this is the true Passover recipe that sustains us throughout the coming year.

*(More on the counting of the Omer.)

[Although Jews no longer bring omer to the Temple the forty-nine days are still called “the Omer.” Many kabbalists (Jewish mystics) saw it as a period of preparing oneself to receive the Torah by reflecting on how to become a better person. They taught that each week of the Omer should be dedicated to a different spiritual quality, such as hesed (kindness), gevurah(strength), tiferet (balance) and yesod (confidence).]

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