By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant
This week, we read Acharei Mot, which has the primary focus of the ancient rituals of Yom Kippur, the ‘Day of Atonement’. During the period of the Mishnah (i.e. the first major redaction of the Oral Torah) in the second century, the Jewish calendar was altered so that the beginning of the New Year (Rosh Hashanah), followed by Yom Kippur, would begin in the fall. The logic for this calendar shift was for each New Year to coincide with the beginning of the cultivation of the agrarian land, which was home to the Israelites(1).
Nevertheless, after the abominable incident of the Golden Calf, the sins and consequential death of Aaron’s two eldest sons, along with the widespread anarchy of the Israelites, our Lord deemed it appropriate for the people to repent for their transgressions. Parsha Acharei Mot begins with the words: “And the Lord said to Moses, speak to your brother, Aaron, who will be bringing ‘sin’ sacrifices from the Israelites, that he should not come into the Holy within the dividing curtain, or he shall surely die like his sons, for I appear over the Ark cover in a dark cloud”(2).
Aaron, acting in his role as High Priest, brought sacrificial animals to make atonement, first for his own sins, then the sins of his ‘house’ and finally for the sins of all the Israelites. The most peculiar element of this Yom Kippur service was the ritual of the two virtually identical goats – one offered as a sacrifice to God, the other sent away to ‘AZAI’’ to die in the wilderness(3). Debates about the significance of the different destinies of the two goats have been ongoing for thousands of years.
Maimonides offers the most compelling explanation, that the ritual was intended as a symbolic drama:
“There is no doubt that sins cannot be carried like a burden, and taken off the shoulder of one being, to be laid on that of another being. These ceremonies are of a symbolic character, to induce people to repent; as if to say, we have freed ourselves of our previous deeds; have cast them behind our backs; and removed them from us as far as possible”(4). Judaism facilitates our ability to atone in several ways. There is the knowledge that God forgives. All that He requires is that we acknowledge our mistakes, learn from them, atone and resolve not to repeat them(5).
On Yom Kippur, we repent in a communal sense, a litany of wrongs enumerated in two alphabetical lists, one beginning ‘Ashamnu’, the other with ‘Al Chet’. In reading these lists of transgressions, there are two very notable characteristics. First, most of the sins we confess relate to our interactions with other people. Second, the individual Jew takes responsibility for the sins of the collective society, regardless of whether he or she is guilty of malfeasance.
“From a theological perspective, the entire community will rise or fall together, held accountable for the actions of its constituent members”(6).
In the core of every branch of Judaism is the fact that the fate of the individual is inextricably tied to the fate of the collective of which they are a part.
(2) LEVITICUS (16:1-2)
(3) LEVITICUS (16:7-22)
(4) Maimonides, “Guide for the Perplexed” (3:46)
(5) Bar Ilan University (Tel Aviv, Israel)
(6) UJA Federation of New York