Bob Schwartz

Day of the Purge: The Random Goats of Yom Kippur

No matter how many layers and centuries of rabbinic interpretation and tradition overlay Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holy days, we are educated by going back to basics and to the foundations. In the case of Yom Kippur, that means back to the Torah.

“And it shall be a perpetual statute for you: in the seventh month on the tenth of the month you shall afflict yourselves and no task shall you do, the native and the sojourner who sojourns in your midst. For on this day it will be atoned for you, to cleanse you of all your offenses, before the LORD you shall be cleansed. It is a sabbath of sabbaths for you, and you shall afflict yourselves, an everlasting statute. And the priest shall atone, who will be anointed and who will be installed to serve as priest in his father’s stead, and he shall put on the linen garments, the sacral garments. And he shall atone for the holy sanctuary and for the Tent of Meeting, and he shall atone for the altar, and for the priests and for all the assembled people he shall atone. And this shall be an everlasting statute for you to atone for the Israelites for all their offenses once in the year.” (Leviticus 16:29-33, Robert Alter translation)

We refer to Yom Kippur (short for the Hebrew yom hakippurim) as the Day of Atonement. But some offer the English translation “the Day of Purgation.” It is the day, according to Leviticus, on which the high priest was allowed to enter the holy of holies of the Tent of Meeting to purge it of the transgressions that had accumulated over the course of year—a dirty accretion that can be thought of as a sort of a dense smog.

Leviticus prescribes a detailed purgative procedure for Aaron to perform. It involves, among other things, a bull, a ram and two goats. Only one of the goats will be sacrificed. But which one?

And from the community of Israelites he shall take two he-goats for an offense offering and one ram for a burnt offering. And Aaron shall bring forward the offense-offering bull which is his and atone for himself and for his household. And he shall take the two goats and set them before the LORD at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. And he shall put lots on the two goats, one for the LORD and one for Azazel. And Aaron shall bring forward the goat for which the lot for the LORD comes up, and he shall make it an offense offering. And the goat for which the lot for Azazel comes up shall be set live before the LORD to atone upon it, to send it off to Azazel in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:6-10)

Who is Azazel? Why is he being sent a wandering goat in the wilderness? And why is the goat being chosen at random by lottery?

Robert Alter:

one [goat] for the LORD and one for Azazel: As countless seals and other ancient inscriptions unearthed by archeologists attest, the use of a proper name or title, prefixed by the letter lamed (“for”) as a lamed of possession, was a standard form for indicating that the object in question belonged to So-and-so (as in lamelekh, “the king’s”). These words, then (in the Hebrew, each is a single word, leYHWH and la‘azaz’el), are the actual texts written on the two lots. Much ink since Late Antiquity has been spilled over the identity of Azazel, but the most plausible understanding—it is a very old one—is that it is the name of a goatish demon or deity associated with the remote wilderness. The name appears to reflect ‘ez, goat.

for which the lot for the LORD comes up: This translation renders the Hebrew verb literally. The use of that verb may be dictated by the fact that the lots were in all likelihood pulled up out of a box or urn.

to send it off to Azazel in the wilderness: Approximate analogues to the so-called scapegoat ritual, using different animals, appear in several different Mesopotamian texts. The origins of the practice are surely in an archaic idea—that the polluting substance generated by the transgressions of the people is physically carried away by the goat. Azazel is not represented as a competing deity (or demon) rivaling YHWH, but the ritual depends upon a polarity between YHWH/the pale of human civilization and Azazel/the remote wilderness, the realm of disorder and raw formlessness. An unapologetic reading might make out the trace of a mythological plot, even if it is no more than vestigial in this monotheistic context. It is as though the goat piled with impurities were being sent back to the primordial realm of “welter and waste” before the delineated world came into being, but that realm here is given an animal-or-demon tag. The early rabbis, extending the momentum of the ritual, imagined the goat as being pushed off a high cliff, but in our text it is merely sent out, or set free, in the wild wilderness that is the realm of Azazel.

Jewish Study Bible:

The use of the two goats is similar to that of the two birds in Leviticus 14.4–7, 49–53. The lottery determines at random how each goat is to be used.

Azazel: The Rabbis cleverly divided this name into two words “ʿez ʾazel,” “the goat that goes away,” from which the traditional “scapegoat” is derived. It literally means “fierce god” and as intimated by the medieval exegete Abraham Ibn Ezra is evidently the name of a demon or deity believed to inhabit the wilderness. Thus the sins of the people are symbolically cast into the realm beyond civilization, to become the property of a being who is the antithesis of the God of Israel. Though Azazel accepts the goat bearing Israel’s sins as a sacrifice to him, this is no disloyalty to God since He Himself commands it, as Naḥmanides (Ramban) says: It is as though a king ordered “Give a portion [of this feast] to my servant so-and-so.”

Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism by Howard Schwartz:

The custom of sending a scapegoat out into the desert as an offering to Azazel is clearly a remnant of a pagan ritual.

In Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 51, God identifies the scapegoat as an atonement for Himself: “This he-goat shall be an atonement for Me, because I have diminished the size of the moon.” See “The Quarrel of the Sun and the Moon,” p. 112, which concludes with God diminishing the moon. We should not overlook the strangeness of God feeling the need to atone. This is reminiscent of Jung’s portrayal of God in Answer to Job. This is one more example of the kind of personification of God so commonly found in rabbinic sources, where God also studies Torah, suffers, mourns, puts on tallit and tefillin and prays.

Who was Azazel, to whom the scapegoat was sent? This appears to be a remnant of a pagan myth in which Azazel was some kind of desert god. Thus the scapegoat represents a sacrifice to the forces of evil. In modern Israel, the phrase “Lekh le Azazel” means “Go to hell!”

A description of the sacrifice of the scapegoat is found in B. Yoma 67a: “On Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) a goat was thrown off a high cliff in the desert, to atone for the sins of the Jews. A red ribbon was hung up in the Temple on that day. When the goat was thrown off the cliff, the ribbon turned white.” This description links the Temple and the sacrifice of the scapegoat, viewing it as a kind of remote Temple offering. The transformation of the ribbon from red to white confirms this.

What to make of all this, in the year 5779/2018? There is no Temple, no Tent of Meeting, no holy of holies. For most of us, there are no goats being chosen by lottery and sent to Azazel, and no Azazel.

Today we live and worship in the interpretation and symbolizing of these Torah stories and ancient roots. But at Yom Kippur, one thing to pay attention to in this is the role of randomness on this solemn occasion. It is not the only instance where randomness plays a part in the Torah.

In the Torah, of course, the seemingly random is no such thing. The lot pulled out of the box is supposedly pre-arranged by God (to quote from Leonard Cohen, as I did in my previous post, “everybody knows the dice are loaded.”)

Yom Kippur is arranged as a soul-searching transaction. Consider what you do, because when you do this that happens. Adding the element of randomness doesn’t change that; it just adds another dimension of reality. Things happen by cause and effect. Things also happen at random. The two are inextricably integrated. You can’t pick the “wrong” goat to send to Azazel, not because God fixed the lottery, but because it is always up to you, wandering like that goat in the wilderness. Just much more aware and thoughtful.

 

Advertisements

Leonard Cohen on Yom Kippur: Who By Fire

A signature prayer of the Days of Awe is Unatenah Tokef:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many will pass and how many will be created?
Who will live and who will die?
Who in their time, and who not their time?
Who by fire and who by water?
Who by sword and who by beast?
Who by hunger and who by thirst?
Who by earthquake and who by drowning?
Who by strangling and who by stoning?
Who will rest and who will wander?
Who will be safe and who will be torn?
Who will be calm and who will be tormented?
Who will become poor and who will get rich?
Who will be made humble and who will be raised up?
But teshuvah and tefillah and tzedakah [return and prayer and righteous acts]
deflect the evil of the decree.

Unatenah Tokef inspired Leonard Cohen to write the song Who By Fire. He restates the prayer poetically, and adds this question:

And who shall I say is calling?

On Yom Kippur, some number of Jews who don’t usually attend services will find themselves not only at a service, but at one on the holiest day of the year, being asked to consider their lives in light of a theology of divine judgment. Some will believe that individual acts are weighed, some will believe that the whole year or a life are taken into account, and some will not believe in any of it at all.

That is where the question comes in. If you engage in the communication on Yom Kippur, or at any time, who is on either end? Is there someone here, is there someone there? Who shall I say is calling?

Who By Fire by Leonard Cohen:

And who by fire, who by water
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial
Who in your merry merry month of May
Who by very slow decay
And who shall I say is calling?

And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate
Who in these realms of love, who by something blunt
And who by avalanche, who by powder
Who for his greed, who for his hunger
And who shall I say is calling?

And who by brave assent, who by accident
Who in solitude, who in this mirror
Who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand
Who in mortal chains, who in power
And who shall I say is calling?

Ray of Light: Trump’s Pardoning May Be Like a Slot Machine

The likelihood of any individual being pardoned by Trump will be affected by Trump’s craziness, unreliability and lack of loyalty. It will be like a slot machine. And that may be a good thing for justice and the rule of law.

Even though I have long accepted that Trump would try to pardon almost everyone who is charged or convicted in the course of the investigation, Paul Manafort’s plea agreement to cooperate raises an encouraging insight:

If you were one of the dozens of people who are getting caught in this net, facing possible years in prison, and Trump told you to your face—not just through an intermediary, not just through hints on Twitter—that you could expect a pardon, would you believe him and depend on him to keep his word?

Of course you wouldn’t believe him and depend on him to keep his word. Which means, just like Manafort, you have to hedge your bets. It is possible that if you agree to cooperate, Trump might still pardon you. On the other hand, if you agree to cooperate, Trump might go crazy and refuse to pardon you. And in the worst case, you might stonewall and take your punishment, but because of some crazy voices in Trump’s head, he might still refuse to pardon you. Who knows? With Trump it’s a roll of the dice, a spin of the slots. As a defendant, are you willing to bet ten or twenty years of your life on a Looney Tunes character? I bet not.

 

Key

Key

When you leave take the key
even for a few steps out the front door
out the back.
What if the door locks behind you?
Even if there’s someone inside
to hear you knocking pounding
ringing calling.
What if she locks it
not knowing where you are?
What if she needs help
and you are locked out helpless?
What if she knows and decides
that this trip to the trash
should be your last?
Only a few possibilities
there are more
prevented by that key in pocket.
One man’s prudence
built on irrefutable logic
is an observer’s key to personality.
What of it?
Analysis is theory
being locked out an inconvenient fact.
Take the key.

“Afghanistan’s Charlie Chaplin says he aims to make people smile, forget grief”

“His live performances provide respite in a city that routinely gets attacked by Taliban insurgents and suicide bombers, mainly claiming allegiance to Islamic State.”

For those who think that they have troubles in their lives and in their nation, or that laughing doesn’t help, or that one person can’t make a difference, even if just a small and temporary one, for your consideration:

Reuters:

Afghanistan’s Charlie Chaplin says he aims to make people smile, forget grief

KABUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan’s Charlie Chaplin says he has witnessed suicide attacks, explosions and threats from hardline Islamic militant groups, but is determined to waddle and bumble to fulfill the primary goal of his life.

“It is very simple, I want to give Afghans a reason to smile,” said Karim Asir, a stand-up comedian who performs across the capital Kabul in Chaplin’s trademark oversized shoes, baggy pants, cane and black bowler hat.

Asir, 25, said Chaplin impersonators are found all over the world helping people ignore grief and making them laugh, and he does the same.

Asir’s early years were in Iran, where his family fled after the hardline Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1996. There he saw performances of Chaplin on Iranian TV.

After the family returned home, Asir started wearing make-up and recreating Chaplin’s characters in his performances, despite his parent’s apprehensions.

His live performances provide respite in a city that routinely gets attacked by Taliban insurgents and suicide bombers, mainly claiming allegiance to Islamic State.

Asir says he has been threatened by militants who say his performances are un-Islamic. But despite the threats, he performs in public parks, orphanages, private parties and at charity events organized by international aid agencies.

“I want to give my people a chance to forget their problems such as war, conflicts and insecurity in Afghanistan,” he said.

In Kabul, when Asir’s fans surround him to take selfies, he smiles but is constantly worried about attacks.

“I am afraid of getting attacked by a suicide bomber or an explosion but these issues cannot stop me from being Charlie Chaplin,” he said.

Rosh Hashanah 5779 – Abraham Joshua Heschel on Repentance

In the realm of spirit, there is no difference between a second and a century, between an hour and an age. Rabbi Judah the Patriarch cried: “There are those who gain eternity in a lifetime, others who gain it in one brief hour.” One good hour may be worth a lifetime; an instant of returning to God may restore what has been lost in years of escaping from Him. “Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than the whole life in the world to come.” (Avot 4:22)
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath

Ben Franklin: My University of Pennsylvania Should Revoke Trump’s Diploma

“By the way this idiot Woodward who wrote this book which is all fiction said that I said something like that, but he put it in a crude manner…The concept is true, but the way it was said was very…hey, I went, like, to the best college.”
Trump at a North Dakota rally

Trump self-importantly crows about his degree from Wharton (like all the time), the business school of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Trump’s point is that he must be, like, a genius with that Penn degree. Penn, is, like, a very good school that continues to provide its students with an excellent education. Though in some small number of high-profile cases, it appears to be casting pearls before swine.

The bigger point is Ben Franklin, credited as founder of the university. Above is a photo of the Ben Franklin statue at the center of campus, in front of College Hall.

Penn has tried to walk a fine line in its relationship with Trump, and with other members of his family who have attended Penn. Just as the sins of the father should not be visited on children, the sins of the alumnus should not be visited on a college. Penn did the best it could, given what it had to work with.

Ben Franklin is having none of it. Among our American founders, he is the most famous for not suffering fools. That’s why he is asking the University of Pennsylvania—his University of Pennsylvania—to revoke Trump’s diploma. That won’t stop Trump from continuing to say he went, like, to the best college, but it will give the best college a way to say: thanks for the compliment and PR, but no thanks. And it will give Ben Franklin a way to stop spinning in his grave, just a few blocks from Independence Hall. Because this is not what he envisioned for the first-ever Penn grad in the White House. Not, like, at all.

The History Test: If the Bob Woodward book doesn’t convince Republicans to remove the president, history will brand them accomplices to disaster

The new Bob Woodward book Fear: Trump in the White House was expected to be explosive. It turns out to be much more than that.

The official book release date isn’t until next week, but the media have it today. Just from the first reports and the mind-boggling quotes from his senior staff and advisers, it is a startling picture—painted by those working closest to him—of presidential incompetence, ignorance, incivility and instability. It is not just a dangerous leadership morass unprecedented in American history; it is unprecedented in the history of world powers. (Which is to say, even the most vile dictators have been clever and knowledgeable, if not downright brilliant.)

Over the coming days, there will be a flood of quotes and reports from the book, followed next week by its public availability. Those who already know the president’s disabilities will still be astonished and even more dismayed. Those partisans who refuse to acknowledge those disabilities will try pointlessly to discredit Woodward—even though he is the dean of American investigative journalists, even though he has recordings of all his many interviews. As for the president, this may be the one that triggers the inevitable total meltdown, which is tempting to consider as a neon billboard to Republicans, but which none of us can wish for as long as he is in the Oval Office.

What now, what next?

As previously noted, even if some Republicans miraculously admit that the president should leave office, and even if Democrats take over one or both houses of Congress in January, the options for preventing damage or disaster are limited. Removal from office by impeachment requires a simple majority of the House but two-thirds majority of the Senate. Removal from office by the 25th Amendment is even more daunting, involving the agreement of the Vice President and the cabinet. And all of that takes time, allowing the incompetent, ignorant, uncivil and unstable president to stay in the White House.

But at least there’s this: When the president asks, “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?”, we can just throw the book at him.

Colin Kaepernick in new Nike ad campaign: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

Colin Kaepernick for Nike

ESPN:

Colin Kaepernick is back — at least as far as Madison Avenue is concerned.

The former NFL quarterback, who is suing NFL owners for colluding to keep him out of the league, is one of the faces of a new Nike campaign meant to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the brand’s iconic “Just Do It” motto.

The new ad, which Kaepernick shared on social media Monday afternoon, features the message: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

Nike signed Kaepernick in 2011 and kept him on its endorsement roster over the years. The company had not used him in the past two years.

“We believe Colin is one of the most inspirational athletes of this generation, who has leveraged the power of sport to help move the world forward,” Gino Fisanotti, Nike’s vice president of brand for North America, told ESPN.

Other athletes in the “Just Do It” campaign include Odell Beckham Jr., Shaquem Griffin, Lacey Baker, Serena Williams and LeBron James.

“We wanted to energize its meaning and introduce ‘Just Do It’ to a new generation of athletes,” Fisanotti said.

Fisanotti said the new version of the campaign is meant to specifically speak to 15- to 17-year olds.

Kaepernick’s protests of racial injustice — which began in August 2016 with sitting and later kneeling during the national anthem — launched a movement across the NFL. No team signed him as a free agent in 2017.

Sure Nike has mixed motives in running this campaign. One of them is to sell shoes. But they are paying their money to communicate an important American message and story. Kaepernick stood up by kneeling, and paid a price, but set a movement in motion. Nike may pay a price for standing up too.

So consider buying a pair of Nikes, even if you don’t want new shoes or their shoes. Consider investing in Nike (NKE), even if you don’t buy stock or want their stock. We need more Americans like Colin Kaepernick and more American companies like Nike to stand up in the face of some ugly and oppressive winds. “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” That’s an American message to be repeated and lived. Just do it.

Wordsworth: The World Is Too Much With Us

The World Is Too Much With Us
by William Wordsworth

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

Note:

We are the people of more or all.

We have never before been able to have so many different things and to tell so many different people about so many different things. We have never been able to want so many different things and to hear from so many people about so many different things. Things include not only material, but events, experiences and ideas.

We may try to have, want, say, hear it all, or as much as possible. We may believe that we are the fortunate beneficiaries of living in this unprecedented situation, and that even the occasional imbalance is outweighed by finally being the people of more or all. Anyway, we are just taking advantage of inevitable progress, are we not? Why shouldn’t just a hint about the next iPhone be a milestone in our lives, making it a major global news story?

Writing more than two hundred years ago, William Wordsworth was in a long line of those who have suggested—begged—that we get our priorities in order and look for relief from a condition we don’t even know we are suffering from. His prescription was Nature, which stands in more broadly for consciousness of the deep essence of existence. We can have more or all, already may have more or all, if we look in the right places.