Rabbi Wolpe - ADL Impressions

Acharei Mot – The Eternal Scapegoat

“The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness. (Lev. 16:22).” This week, we read about the ceremony that led to the term scapegoat.’

That which is guiltless bears away the guilt and shame of others. In time, the idea became not just that we place our sins knowingly on someone or something else, but that we blame them for our own failings. We are absolved and the other is guilty. For much of human this very psychology played a role in hatred of the Jews.

When societies had difficulties, from medieval Spain to 20th century Germany, rather than explore the internal problems that caused the crisis, people – especially the leadership — blamed the Jews. Finding a reason outside oneself to despise is so much more gratifying than recognizing one’s own faults.

As the scholar Ruth Wisse has detailed, making the Jews scapegoat builds coalitions. What is more unifying than a common hatred? Whether it is for the axis powers in WW2 or the Arab nations at the founding of Israel, the identification of an enemy – especially one too weak to defend itself – forged a bond of mutual enmity. And the Jews paid the price.

When you wonder how signs could appear as oxymoronic as “Queers for Hamas,” the answer is the same. Once you build a coalition of hatred, it doesn’t matter that your values clash with other partners; you are bound by this common enemy.

The Torah understood this psychological mechanism, creating a benign and helpful system. The goat wanders off into the wilderness. No one is hurt. But when self-loathing turns outwards to other human beings, it creates havoc in the world.

Just as the Torah recognizes the syndrome, it provides the antidote. The very beginning of Genesis teaches that every human being is in the image of God. No single group is responsible for the sins and unhappiness of humanity, but there is a single spiritual reality that ties us all together. Rather than a coalition built on hatred, the Torah teaches a coalition built on the acknowledgment that we are all sparks of the Divine – a coalition built on respect, on decency, and on love.