Acharei Mot – Sins banished

William Holman Hunt: The Scapegoat, 1854.

8 Aaron will place lots on the two goats – one for YHWH and one for Azazel. 9 Aaron will offer the goat for an offering of transgression [1]  to YHWH. 10 And the goat with the lot for Azazel will stand before YHWH to expiate by sending it to Azazel [2] in the desert.

Leviticus 16

Would that goat walk a long way before it perished in the desert, as it carried the sins of a whole nation? The sins were tangled in its fur and permeated its skin. It couldn’t shake them off of its head or shoulders or back. Someone just had to take it away each year.

21 Aaron will place his two hands on the head of the living goat and confess all of the offenses of the children of Israel, and all of their crimes and all of their transgressions which he will place on the goats head; he will send it away in the charge of the “ish itti” [3]Hebrew uncertain to the desert.

Leviticus 16

What was it like to accompany this goat into the desert: a quick run for a way out into the wilderness or a slow stroll down into a barren valley? Did it seen like a rocky road to hell? No other goat was as important to a whole nation when it wandered away with so many sins aboard it.

What was that “ish itti”:  an escort or protector or simply an attendant, going along as a witness to the safe dispatch of all those terrible sins? (Which of his sins were carried by that goat?)

Was it a silent journey out into the desert from the Mishkan? Maybe “ish itti” called out to that goat along the way: Oh goat, poor goat, just get along and get going out of here! Along the route there might have been curious onlookers who’d call out: Good riddance you valuable goat!

Today we are left with a shell of a day to purify ourselves – no Mishkan, no priests, no sacrifices and not goat being led into the desert by “ish itti”. Gone astray, we have to purify ourselves.

29 This will be an enduring statute: on the 10th day of in the 7th month you will practice self-denial—no work will be done by the citizen or the sojourner among you. 30 For this day will expiate for you and purify you from all of your transgressions; you will be exonerated before YHWH.

Leviticus 16

And yet were did those rituals really purify our ancestors? If not, then they were like us and didn’t even know it – hopelessly culpable and ultimately responsible for all we do and all we say. Not as satisfying as watching a sin laden goat disappear into the wilderness, for we are all left holding our sins. They hover above us and we never are sure if we get relief. (Some may haunt us, while others will only cause us to flinch at the thought of them.) Our burden of sin may never be lightened.  So we ought to be more careful, but we are so like our ancestors: first we sin and then we desire forgiveness.

Imagine that there is some goat that could have been made a scapegoat like the one in ancient times. Set it in a sweet green pasture by a pristine stream to graze, because no animals should be harmed for anyone’s sins.

1 A psalm to David: YHWH is my shepherd, I will not want.

2 In green pastures I lie down; on still waters I am led

3 I am revived…

Psalm 23

Midrash Harabah and English translations by Rabbi Gail Shuster-Bouskila ©2021


3 Hebrew uncertain