Bearing the Burden

We’ve all likely heard the term “scapegoat,” a person or group that is blamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of others, usually for reasons of expediency.

But what do goats have to do with it?

The term “scapegoat” has its origins in this week’s double Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, in which we learn that a scapegoat is not an abstract concept, but a ritual involving, you guessed it, live goats.

The Torah portion describes the annual Yom Kippur ceremony that the High Priest would use to cleanse the people of their sins. First, he would take two identical goats and would, by lottery, designate one goat as a sacrifice to God, and one to be kept alive for later use as the scapegoat. After the sacrifice of the first goat, the High Priest would engage in the following ritual:

“He shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness…thus the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region” (Leviticus 16:21-22).

With all of their mistakes, sins, and wrongdoings transferred from the people to the goat, and the goat sent out to die in the wilderness, the people could enter the new year feeling relieved of the burden of guilt and shame from the previous one. To us, this ritual might seem oddly physical; sins can’t just be transferred from a person’s conscience to a goat. But for the Israelites, the scapegoat was a tool to help them leave behind the sins of the past and begin anew.

Since the days of the Bible, humans in all societies have engaged in this ritual of identifying and banishing a scapegoat… with one significant difference: scapegoat is no longer a goat, but a human being or a group of people blamed for the ills of society and sent to its margins.

Isabel Wilkerson, author of Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, claims societies based on caste systems, like ours in the United States, use the practice of scapegoating as a way to keep members of the lower caste outside of the sphere of concern of the upper castes. She writes:

“In a caste system, whether in the United States or in India or in World War II Germany, the lowest caste performed the unwitting role of diverting society’s attention from its structural ills and taking the blame for collective misfortune…the scapegoat unwittingly helps unify the favored castes to be seen as free of blemish as long as there is a visible disfavored group to absorb their sins.” When times are tough, it’s easier to blame an already marginalized group than to do the hard work of repairing the brokenness in society.

This desire to transfer our own sins and pain onto other beings is deeply ingrained into our consciousness. It feels good to transfer our burdens onto something, or someone, else. But what happens to those who bear the brunt? They end up being seen as expendable, destined to languish in the wilderness of our society.

How do we work to diminish this dangerous human tendency? The second Torah portion we read this week, Kedoshim, gives us a potential answer. In it, God instructs Moses to assemble kol adat b’nai Yisrael, the entire community of the people of Israel, to receive the Holiness Code, a list of instructions that will allow them to achieve a state of sanctity. The Holiness Code begins with the proclamation: “You all are Holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:1).

This is a revolutionary idea, both in the ancient world and today, because it teaches that all people — not just those at the top of the social hierarchy — are inherently holy. This echoes the decision by God, made at the very beginning of the Torah, that humans will be created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of the Divine. Therefore, in an ideal world, we would recognize that no human being can ever serve as a scapegoat; their inherent holiness won’t allow for it.

Perhaps this week’s conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd is a sign that our society is finally understanding that Black Lives, too, are inherently holy; they are not to be scapegoated, but treated with equal justice under law. But can we imagine a society where that is already the assumption, where we didn’t have to be reminded of this fact through the tragic loss of life, and ordeal of national strife and discord? This is the aspiration set out in Torah.

May we help to build a world where, instead of seeking out a scapegoat and transferring our burdens to others, we take to heart this powerful teaching in the Torah, so that it is no longer a yearning, or even a cliché, but a reality by which we live.