5771 — Acharei Mot — “One Little Goat”

17/04/2011 at 10:07 Leave a comment

“One Little Goat”

 

Parashat Acharei Mot

16 April 2011

Neil F. Blumofe

At our seders and throughout the days of Pesach, we can generally make a big distinction between what is matzah and what is hametz.  One piece of food flat, crumbly, and enjoyable — for a limited time – a novelty of the year perhaps, although we are reminded that we can eat it at any time – and the other food, delicious – even more so when it’s missed – we notice a craving with its absence.

And it is a little discordant at first blush, to be chanting the Torah portion this morning – which is the Yom Kippur portion (Leviticus 16) – on Shabbat haGadol – so named historically, because this was the time when the community could ask questions and receive information appropriate for the preparations towards Pesach.  What is Yom Kippur doing here?  What can we gain by making the associations between Yom Kippur and Pesach?

I often teach that Yom Kippur and the days of the month of Tishrei help us find an individual response to God.  We identify and then strip away the false and destructive layers of our character and behavior, retaining what is good and positive and holy and hopefully jettisoning the rest – leaving us with a renewed and refined soul and a rootedness and comfort in our life that can help us to withstand many challenges and doubts that we may carry.

On Pesach, the journey is similar, with a bit of a different result – here; we are not to concentrate on internal changes, as so much as to reinvest ourselves in the community.  The story of Pesach is the story of forming a Jewish people.  We participate in the story of slavery to freedom and responsibility – and we know that we go along the stages of life together – when we eat unleavened foods for Pesach, we are getting rid of our checked baggage, for which we often pay a price – making do just with our carry on – intentionally reminding ourselves what is expendable and what is essential.

At least in the back of our minds, we know that in this life we are just passing through – and Pesach gives us the opportunity to simplify and to bring forward only what we need – physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually to make our lives richer.  It is often a painful, expensive, and difficult exercise to get our homes ready for Pesach – deciding what food to shelve, to donate and to discard – can bring on a faith to trust this process of preparation and at same time, to get ready for another potential and maybe unforeseen exodus from our established homes and ways of life.

This year, having the juxtaposition of Acharei Mot and the beginning of Pesach gives us a good challenge to reflect on what we are truly doing as we ready ourselves for the Festival.  In our Torah portion we learn a verse: u’mei’eit adat b’nei yisrael yikach sh’nei s’irei izim l’chatat v’ayil echad l’olah – from the assembly of the children of Israel he will take two kid goats – one for the sin offering and one for a burnt offering.  The he in this verse is referring to Aaron, the High Priest – and he would dedicate one of the goats to haShem and the other to the mysterious Other, Azazel.  At this point, most commentators focus on the differences between God and Azazel – however, let us concentrate now on the similarities between the offerings of the goats.  It is easy to see from the Hebrew that the offerings were identical in appearance – and our sages are concerned that the offerings themselves would get mixed up – that the one for God would somehow mistakenly go instead to Azazel – and vice versa.  Certain preventive measures were employed to distinguish the goats – a red string tied to the head of the Azazel offering, for example.  After the physical demarcation, our sages added a spiritual difference – the fact that both sacrifices looked the same outwardly reinforces to us the thin dividing line which separates the holy from the profane.

In other words, in matters of wanting to do holy things and really change our unhelpful patterns – it is difficult to discern why we do what we do – what is truly for God and what is for other motivations.  Thinking this through can be complex – in our lives we may have many motivations – and how we rationalize is often not black and white – God one one side and Azazel on the other.  However, our Torah is teaching us the importance of the existential act, of performing the mitzvah.  While we may have mixed feelings about many things, ultimately we are called upon to do something – to come down on one side or the other.  To think with our Pesach hats on for a moment – it is either hametz or it is not – we do not leave our food languishing – we make decisions about what we serve in our seders and what we eat the rest of the days of this Festival of Freedom.

We can’t carry two goats with us into the Pesach – to express all of our knotty rationales and the crash of our interior motivations – rather, we can manage only one goat that we inherited from our tradition – for the two goats spoken of in the Torah are really just one little goat.  On Pesach, we do not hedge our bets. In order to make community, we work with a chad gadya – one goat in which we have faith that we haven’t mixed it up with another – and that we are dedicating our lives in community to act for the right purpose.

Our traditions blend so many things – the salt water and the green vegetable, the maror and the haroset, the Hillel sandwich – the types of four children that are all within us as well – the 10 plagues and the cups of redemption – we know too that beyond all of these customs that are part of our celebration of Pesach, we make vital and important decisions about what we do with our time and our money and with whom we choose to share time.

Pesach teaches us that we belong in community and also helps us to form successful associations as a people.   Success will come as we slog through all of our inner voices and separate out what we need and what is just an echo chamber – past our double vision of one goat each for God and Azazel, we offer only one essential goat, performing a bit of a Yom Kippur inside Pesach – as we join together.  Thus we can then concentrate on the idea found in the Torah that the essential thing is the deed and together, we can live confidently, dependably and reliantly on the help, the graciousness, the patience, and thus, the goodness of others.

Shabbat Shalom.

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