Yom Kippur Day 5778 “The Two Steps to Forgiveness”

I want you to think to yourselves, but not say out loud, what is the first thing that pops into your mind when you hear the word, “scapegoat”. Hold on to that thought, and we will come back to it later.

The story is told of a leader of an Eastern European nation discussing his country’s problems with President Woodrow Wilson following World War I. “If our demands are not met at the conference table,” said the Prime Minister, “I can foresee serious trouble in my country. Why, my people will be so irritated that many of them will go out and massacre the Jews.”

“And what will happen if your demands are granted?” asked President Wilson?

“Why, my people will be so happythat they will get drunk and go out and massacre the Jews!”

There is much black humor that plays on the fact that the reasons offered by anti-Semites for violence against Jews are seldom the real reasons for that violence. In 1968, for example, when anti-government riots erupted in Poland, the then-communist government blamed the Jews of the country, who at that time represented less than one tenth of one percent of the population. Thirty four years later, in 2006, at the height of the avian flu scare, the official Syrian newspaper accused Israel of intentionally developing the virus in order to harm its Arab neighbors.  Three years after that, in 2009 a survey conducted in several European countries found that 31% of respondents believed that Jews were responsible for the financial crisis of 2008. These are just three examples of the scapegoating of Jews that has been part of the fabric of the history of Western civilization for the past 2500 years.

The word “scapegoat” is first found in our Torah reading that we just heard this morning.  It is the strangest and most mysterious element of the ancient Yom Kippur ritual. According to Rashi, “Aaron placed his right hand on one goat, and his left hand on the other. He then removed both hands from the heads of the goats, and put them in an urn where there were two lots. Written on one of the lots were the words “For the Lord”. Written on the other lot were the words, “For Azazel”.  Aaron took one lot in his right hand and one lot in his left hand, and placed them upon the corresponding goat. The goat so designated as “For the Lord” was to be slaughtered as a sacrifice in atonement for the sins of the Israelites. Aaron confessed the sins of the people on the other goat, the goat for Azazel. This goat was then sent, off to live, in the wilderness, never to return.

One of the mysteries of this Yom Kippur ritual is the very name “Azazel”?  Who or what is “Azazel”? It is a “hapax legomenan” – an ancient Greek term meaning “something said only once”. The word Azazel is only found in this morning’s Torah reading.  There are no other places it is used in the Bible, and therefore no other contexts in which to understand what it means. The translation of the Bible from Hebrew into Greek in the second century BCE, known as the Septuagint, understood the word to be a compound of “az” or “goat” and “azel” or departing – in other words, “the departing, or vanishing, goat”. Six hundred years later, when the Bible was translated into Latin, the goat was termed “capro emissario” or “the emissary goat”. The first English translation, by William Tyndale in 1530, coined the word, “escape goat” from where our own “scapegoat” is derived.  This goat is thus both the “scapegoat” – the goat upon whose head all of the sins of the people are placed – and the “escape goat” – the goat that escapes to the wilderness and lives.

The two goats brought before Aaron had to be identical in height, in weight, in color and in monetary value. Yet they would have two different fates. One would live, and one would die. Their fates would be determined by the random movement of Aaron’s fingers as he placed his hands into the urn to draw the lots. This reminds us that there are some aspects of life that are determined by pure chance. It reminds us that there are some things in life over which we have no control. The Talmud puts it this way, “Our health, our children and our wealth are not determined by what we deserve but on our good or bad fortune.” We read about the drawing of lots on Yom Kippur to remind us that there are some facets of our lives that are totally in the hands of G-d.

I started this sermon by asking you for your associations to the word “scapegoat”. There are many famous scapegoats in history:

Adam blamed Eve for enticing him to eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Marie Antointette was blamed for many of the problems that led to the French Revolution.

Can a cow be scapegoated? Mrs. O’Leary’s cow was scapegoated for the great Chicago fire of 1871. In fact it was a careless pipe smoker – a neighbor of Mrs. O’Leary’s, who discarded a match that started the fire.

Yoko Ono was blamed for the breakup of the Beatles.

Bill Buckner was blamed for the 1986 Red Sox World Series loss when a ball hit down the first base line went through his legs. Who did you think of?

Of all the scapegoats in history, how many of you thought of a Cubs fan who became the most famous scapegoat in Chicago sports history, Steve Bartman? He was in the news again just the a few months ago.

Steve Bartman was one of tens of thousands of Chicago Cubs fans at Wrigley Field on October 14, 2003 watching the National League Championship playoff game between the Cubs and the Florida Marlins. The Cubs were leading the seven game series 3-2 and were leading the game 3-0 with one out in the top of the eighth inning. Five more outs and the Cubs would be in the World Series for the first time since 1945. Florida Marlins second baseman Luis Castillo hit a ball down the left field line. It began to fall in foul territory heading toward the seats. Moises Alou, the Cub’s left fielder raced into the foul area to catch it for the second out of the inning. As the ball lofted toward the stands, Bartman also reached out from his seat near the left field line and deflected the ball away from the waiting glove of Alou. Instead of the second out of the inning Castillo’s pop up fell as a mere foul ball. Castillo then walked, Cubs shortstop Alex Gonzalez muffed a double play ball, and by the end of the inning the Marlins had taken an 8-3 lead.

As the Cubs lost their lead in the top of the eighth inning enraged fans turned on Bartman, holding him responsible for the ignominious defeat. He had to be escorted from the ballpark by security as he was cursed at and pelted with debris and even a beer.  He even needed to be placed under police protection for a time after his identity became known. Steve Bartman became a “scapegoat”. It was the Cubs that lost the game, but Bartman got the blame! Just as the goat designated “for Azazel” left the Israelite camp for the wilderness and was never seen again, so Steve Bartman was exiled from Wrigley Field and has yet to return. That’s right. In the 14 years that have elapsed since that fateful day, Steve Bartman, despite invitations from the Cubs management, has not yet set foot in that ball park.

This past July, the Cubs presented Steve Bartman with a 2016 World Series ring. National Public Radio host and Chicago native Scott Simon summed up the meaning of this gesture in saying, “Cubs fans have been waiting for a moment like this. Just to put their arms around the guy one way or another and say: ‘It could have been any of us; it just happened to be you. And we’re sorry for what happened to you.’”

I see this act as representing the completion of a lengthy process of atonement by the baseball community for the scapegoating of Steve Bartman. Forgiveness is not only about saying we are sorry. For although we are sorry for what happened, and our apology has been accepted, there is still the damage to the reputation, the shame and the diminished standing in the community which remains. How does one address the permanent harm done to a person that one has wronged? The World Series ring is the baseball public’s attempt to erase this stain.

This example might give us insight into why the Yom Kippur ritual in the Torah involved two goats. On all other days of the year, if an Israelite wanted to be forgiven by G-d for a sin, he or she would confess the sin on one goat, and that goat would be sacrificed to G-d. What, then, is the need for the other goat on this one day of the year, on Yom Kippur? And why was the goat upon whose head the sins were confessed not sacrificed, but let go? The Torah tells us in a verse we read this morning, “For on this day, the High Priest shall provide atonement for you for cleansing you – you shall be cleansed of all your sins before G-d.” The verse hints that there are two elements of forgiveness occurring on Yom Kippur – atonement and cleansing. Perhaps the two goats represent these two elements.  What is the difference between them?

The first stage, atonement, is called “Kappara” in the Hebrew. The word “kappara” is related to the name of this day, Yom Kippur. Atonement is achieved through the process called Teshuvah – repentance.  We are forgiven our sins when we recognize our error, understand that we were wrong, and resolve to try not to make the same mistake in the future. We acknowledge that we cheated in business and on Yom Kippur we asked G-d for forgiveness and resolve not to cheat again. We acknowledge that lost our temper and promise to try to be more patient in the future. We admit that we scapegoated a young man and made his life miserable. Kappara/Atonement means that G-d forgives us. G-d will not exact punishment for our misdeeds. On Yom Kippur, G-d pardons us. Whatever punishment we may deserve for our transgressions in the past year from G-d are mercifully rescinded. We may be guilty, but G-d will not hold us liable.

Kappara/Atonement is represented by the first goat, the one designated “For the Lord”.

But on Yom Kippur there is an additional step in the repentance process, represented by the second goat. A sinful act may be forgiven, through Teshuvah, but it leaves a stain on the soul that needs to be washed away. That step is symbolized by Tahara, or purification.

Atonement is concerned with guilt – the internal anxiety or unhappiness related to knowing our behavior was wrong, and we have harmed somebody.  Guilt takes place in the psychological realm – in our head.  Purification/Tahara may be more related to shame, which takes place in the social realm – between people.  Therefore, a person who cheats in business can admit his guilt, apologize, make restitution, and spend time in prison. But there is also shame involved, as a result of a stain on the reputation, which does not get erased because the apology has been accepted. A person who loses their temper may apologize, and that apology can be accepted. But there is also a stigma associated with losing one’s temper, which doesn’t go away because an apology has been accepted.  The businessman who has served time in prison may find it difficult for others to trust him, even after he has admitted his guilt and served his time. The one who loses their temper may forever be seen as a hot-headed and intemperate person, even after they have apologized for their outburst.

Moreover, once we engage in a wrongful behavior, our resistance to repeating that behavior weakens, becomes more fragile.  Tahara/Purification, therefore, symbolizes the need to make a break from the environments which contribute to these self- destructive behaviors. Purification implies identifying the factors which contribute to these self-defeating behaviors and avoiding them. It means that not only have we recognized our sin and resolved to improve, but that we have stayed off the paths that lead to sin. Only then, only when we have achieved both kappara and tahara, atonement from sin and purification, can we be said to have completed teshuvah.

Judaism is a religion of hope. Yom Kippur holds out the possibility that not only can we be forgiven for our wrongful acts, but that we can erase the stain on our character that these acts leave behind. We are not condemned to live with our past mistakes. Yom Kippur teaches that with insight, effort and through the grace of G-d, we can truly turn around our lives and become better people.

To that let us say  — Amen!