(An excerpt from my new book: ToraHighlights)
In biblical times the sacred Festival of Yom Kippur featured the ritual of the “scapegoat.” (Leviticus 16)
The high priest selected two goats, one for a sacrifice on the altar and the other to symbolically carry the sins of the Children of Israel away into the wilderness.
As the Torah says: ‘And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the people of Israel … putting them on the head of the goat … and he shall send the goat off into the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:21-22)
Rabbinic literature attests that the person led the goat to a mountain peak and pushed the goat down. “Before it reached halfway down the hill it was dashed to pieces (B. Yoma 67a).”
Our modern sensibilities recoil at the notion that our wrongdoings can—even symbolically—transfer themselves onto an innocent goat whose death in the wilderness atones for our transgressions.
Today we are responsible for our own atonement. We observe Yom Kippur by—if and only if our health permits—abstaining from food and drink. We then spend the day in serious contemplation of our wrongdoings and in prayer asking God to forgive our sins.
Our tradition insists that before we can expect God to answer our prayers for forgiveness we must first go to those we have wronged in the past year and try to appease them.
My Hebrew teacher in Israel, the late Sarah Rothbard, whom I revered, said: “It is not just a credit to the Jewish people that we invented a day like Yom Kippur. It is a credit to all humanity.”
What a wonderful concept. We humans can examine our actions, repent our wrongdoings and change for the better!