Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: Carrying One Another

Avigayil Halpern is publishing a weekly feminist dvar Torah on the parsha through her newsletter, Approaching, which is being crossposted to Jewschool. You can subscribe to Approaching here.

As the Rabbis tell it, bringing out the scapegoat into the wilderness was a grand ceremony. At the Temple in Jerusalem, the goat was selected via lottery (its paired goat would be sacrificed), and the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, would lay hands on the goat and confess the sins of the Jewish people onto it.

The goat was then handed off to the person who was to lead it away. He walked out of the city on a ramp, to avoid people who would grab at the goat and yell. Several of the important people of Jerusalem would accompany him up to the first booth — there were ten sukkot, booths, from Jerusalem to the cliff, which was a distance of seven miles.

At every booth the people in the booth would offer him food and water. And they would go with him from booth to booth, except the people in the the last booth, who would not go with him up to the cliff, but rather stand far away, and watch what he was doing.

The goat’s escort would divide a thread of crimson wool and tie one half to the rock and the other half between the goat’s horns, and push it from behind. The goat would roll down the cliff, and before it had gotten halfway downhill it would had broken into limbs. The escort would came back and sit in the last booth until it grew dark and Yom Kippur ended.

The above paragraphs are a lightly edited version of several mishnayot from the sixth perek of Mishnah Yoma. I’m struck by the elaborate ceremony, the infrastructure of the ramps and huts leading out of the city, that the Rabbis build out of only three verses in Parshat Acharei Mot:

וְכִלָּה מִכַּפֵּר אֶת־הַקֹּדֶשׁ וְאֶת־אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְאֶת־הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וְהִקְרִיב אֶת־הַשָּׂעִיר הֶחָי׃

When he has finished purging the Shrine, the Tent of Meeting, and the altar, the live goat shall be brought forward.

וְסָמַךְ אַהֲרֹן אֶת־שְׁתֵּי ידו [יָדָיו] עַל רֹאשׁ הַשָּׂעִיר הַחַי וְהִתְוַדָּה עָלָיו אֶת־כָּל־עֲוֺנֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶת־כָּל־פִּשְׁעֵיהֶם לְכָל־חַטֹּאתָם וְנָתַן אֹתָם עַל־רֹאשׁ הַשָּׂעִיר וְשִׁלַּח בְּיַד־אִישׁ עִתִּי הַמִּדְבָּרָה׃

Aaron 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 through a designated man.

וְנָשָׂא הַשָּׂעִיר עָלָיו אֶת־כָּל־עֲוֺנֹתָם אֶל־אֶרֶץ גְּזֵרָה וְשִׁלַּח אֶת־הַשָּׂעִיר בַּמִּדְבָּר׃

Thus the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.

Notably, a major piece of the rabbinic version of this ceremony is rooted in these sparse verses: the notion that an “ish iti,” a designated person, must take the goat out to the wilderness. This person is essential to the process.

I’ve long been fascinated by the Yom Kippur experience of the “ish iti.” This person carries a heavy weight of responsibility, and yet is at a distance from the central rites of the Temple for most of the day. They spend their Yom Kippur walking through the desert, albeit accompanied by a rotating cast of characters, until they find themself standing on a rocky cliff, pushing the goat down alone. They then sit for the rest of the day, perhaps imagining the communal power they’re missing at the Temple as they rest in this hut in the wilderness.

This is an image of a lonely Yom Kippur, one spent in service of the community but largely without the community. But perhaps this person, this “ish iti,” may not have been the only lonely one.

Rabbi Naama Kelman, writing in her essay “Journey into the Wilderness” in Beginning Anew: A Woman’s Companion to the High Holy Days, asks about the entirety of this section, “Where are the words, where are the women, where is the community? Where can we possibly find ourselves in this text…? When, where, and how do we cleanse ourselves?”

Later on in the essay, Kelman elaborates on her imaginings of women’s experiences of the scapegoat ritual:

In this wilderness encounter on Yom Kippur we look to God for forgiveness, but what do we ask of ourselves? We assume that the he-goat is the innocent victim. What does he symbolize for us? Blame and guilt, self-blame and undiminished guilt. Women, who have been marginalized and blamed since the creation of Eve, tend to blame themselves first. We readily scapegoat ourselves, taking all blame, while secretly wishing we were the high priests, masters of all fates.

…What did our foremothers think as they watched the goat cast out? Did they allow their sins to go, too, or did they hold them close?

Kelman points us to the difficulty for many women of releasing the burden of guilt, which we may have taken on or had thrust upon us even undeservingly. Kelman points to a longing to take the place of the High Priest, the Kohen Gadol, rather than to imagine ourselves as the scapegoat, ready to give ourselves up completely.

But there is a third choice, that between the guilt of the scapegoat and the power of the High Priest — who, after all, was likely deeply lonely as well, as the only one who could perform so many key elements of the Yom Kippur rites, with nobody to do them alongside him.

The image of the “ish iti,” the designated person who brought out the goat, is one that I initially framed as lonely. But what if it didn’t have to be? The ish iti can be a model of community and of mutual support.

The Gemara in Yoma (66b) records a question that has lingered with me since I first encountered it.

שאלו את רבי אליעזר: חלה, מהו שירכיבהו על כתפו? אמר להם: יכול הוא להרכיב אני ואתם.

 חלה משלחו, מהו שישלחנו ביד אחר? אמר להם אהא בשלום אני ואתם.

They asked Rabbi Eliezer: [If the scapegoat] became ill, what is [the ruling about if the  escort may] carry it on his shoulder? He said to them: That [goat] can carry me and you.

[They asked him: If] the one sending the goat away became ill, what is [the ruling about if] they send it with someone else? He said to themI and you shall be in peace.

The scapegoat is imagined as bearing the weight of the community’s sins — but what happens if the escort needs to himself bear the weight of the goat? And furthermore, ask the anonymous questioners, what if the escort himself is sick and needs help, needs someone else to step in?

Rabbi Eliezer deflects these questions; he essentially tells the askers to leave him alone, that these scenarios are profoundly unlikely to occur. But these questions open up a horizon for us. They prompt us to imagine: What if the goat cannot even carry itself, much less the burden of sin? What if the ish iti needs the community to step in for them?

Just one page later, on Yoma 67a, the Gemara offers us another picture of communal support.

על כל סוכה וסוכה אומרים לו: הרי מזון והרי מים.״ תנא: מעולם לא הוצרך אדם לכך, אלא שאינו דומה מי שיש לו פת בסלו למי שאין לו פת בסלו.

At each and every booth they would say to him: Here is food; here is water. It was taught: No one ever needed this. However, one who has bread in his basket is not similar to one who does not have bread in his basket.

At every stop along the way through the scorching desert, teaches this sugya, the ish iti would be offered food and water. Regardless of their need for it, knowing they had this support would change their experience. The community would hold them.

Kelman asks, “what did our foremothers think as they watched the goat cast out?” I don’t know, but I imagine they stood together as they watched, leaning on each other in the heat of the Jerusalem day.

It can be very easy to think that the way out of feeling like the scapegoat is to instead strive to be the Kohen Gadol. When feeling overwhelmed, vulnerable, or guilty, it can be easy to think that the way out is to strive for individual power, to stand on our own. This is in many ways the message of corporate feminism, that the way for the marginalized to find freedom is to excel individually.

But what the Ish Iti offers us is a third option. We can both embrace our vulnerability and find power in community. We can feel weak and allow those around us to offer us what we need. We might walk through the wilderness alone bearing our burdens, but we can then turn around to that last booth in the desert and find that there are people there waiting for us, to sit with us. Allowing others to care for us is a central part of how we can encounter the Divine.

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