Acharei Mot: The GOAT Parade

Michael Jordan fakes on a drive against the Los Angeles Lakers in February 1988. By Andy Hayt for Sports Illustrated

Michael Jordan fakes on a drive against the Los Angeles Lakers in February 1988. By Andy Hayt for Sports Illustrated


Before “Baby Goat Yoga(yes this is an actual millennial activity) – and well before children’s themed birthday parties involving the sheepy, bearded creatures (that children are encouraged to pet for some reason??) – the nation of Israel used goats as sin-offerings to God. By pushing them off cliffs. To atone for our transgressions, of course. Entertaining flexibility classes with hyperactive animals was a missed opportunity on our part. And while we’re on the subject, let’s not forget the Passover chanting of Chad Gadya: a rowdy song about a cat actually eating “one little goat.” I guess one could just say the Jews have a strange relationship with goats. In parshat Achrei Mot, we read:

“Aaron shall take the two he-goats and let them stand before the LORD at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the LORD and the other marked for Azazel. Aaron shall bring forward the goat designated by lot for the LORD, which he is to offer as a sin offering.” [1] “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.” [2]

But this wasn’t a private affair. It became a grand, public act of expiation, coordinated by the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) himself. Meaning, this “guilt–be–gone” opportunity could be yours to own! Call God toll–free now to receive your scapegoat for the price of just “two zuzim”! But seriously, this iniquity goat ritual became quite elaborate and gruesome:

“People from among the prominent residents of Jerusalem would escort the one leading the goat until they reached the first booth. Booths were set up along the path to the wilderness to provide the escort a place to rest. There were ten booths from Jerusalem to the cliff. What did the one designated to dispatch the goat do there?...he pushed the goat backward, and it rolls and descends. And it would not reach halfway down the mountain until it was torn limb from limb.” [3]  

“The Sages taught: The word Azazel indicates that the cliff the goat is pushed from should be rough and hard…Therefore, the verse states: ‘In the wilderness.’ And from where does one derive that the goat is pushed from a cliff? The verse states ‘gezeira,’ indicating an area that is sharp, like a cliff.[4]

Yup, that’s right. We took this poor animal on what appears to be a Yom Kippur, red carpet Goat Parade. We are taught, “At every booth, they would say to him, ‘Here is food and water’” (Mishnah Yoma 6:5). Ostensibly, this goat was having the best day of its little life! But after having the billy make its rounds from one tent to another – completing the bizarre tailgating party/walkabout – absorbing one sin after the next – we shove it right off a cliff. A sharp one.

So, if you’re like me, thoroughly mystified and a bit repulsed by the cultic ceremonies of our ancestors, then you’re not alone. But before you discount Azazel as yet another unsophisticated, extravagantly grisly tradition of the past – look at this from another perspective. Take a moment to consider why our need for expiation manifested to such an extreme degree. As Rabbi Soloveitchik reminds us, “People are loath to acknowledge a fact that hurts them more than they can bear.” So ask yourself: To what extent you would go to disentangle yourself from your past? To be absolved? To put tangible distance between the person you are now, and that somebody who lied, stole, or cheated? As our Rabbis explain: 

“It was taught in the Mishna that the Babylonians would say: Take our sins and go. It was taught in the Tosefta that they would say as follows: Why does this goat remain here with the many sins of the generation; let him hurry and leave.” [5]

Meaning, we want to rip off that psychological price tag as quickly as possible. The way those paper retail tags irritate the skin – the way they dangle awkwardly in the dressing room when looking in the mirror. Or the cumbersome security magnets that prevent you from actually buttoning, belting, and fastening the clothing item. They’re annoying and we want them gone. Because Israelite or not, we all want to distance ourselves from error. To push away our past. Because sometimes it’s the only way forward. The goat is metaphorically expunging our record (shredding it, technically) – criminal or otherwise. And like most Americans with a rap sheet, our history may prevent us from getting a job. Buying a car. Moving states. Or just moving on entirely.

The mangled goat is representative of our former selves that we don’t want loitering around. Trailing and trolling us like a shadow. “Kick it off a hill for all I care! Throw it off a mountain!” Just please, don’t let it be here. With me. Now. Because God, my mistakes - and they are many – are too painful to look at. Too ugly of truths to have lingering about. So we send them off. Shake them out like a beach towel. Goodbye! And bit-by-bit, we shatter their very existence until they disintegrate entirely, back into the earth. Where nobody can dig them up.

It is one of God’s greatest gifts that [God] permits a person to erase the sins of his past so that he can begin a better life, a life unhampered by the corrosive effects of past sins.
— Stone Edition Chumash, p. 638

Just so we're clear, I’m not advocating for violence against goats, billies, kids, or bucks. Or any living creature for that matter. But I do recommend removing your bad juju and toxic energy - your transgressions and iniquities - the bad and the ugly. Transfer them into a punching bag. Sweat them out at the gym. Sing them out. Dance them out. Go full on Dirty Dancing Patrick Swayze. But whatever you do, don’t bring them home with you! Don’t carry them around. Leave them! Don’t kill the goat. Be the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time). “Be like Mike.”

You can lose. Michael Jordan lost, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t the GOAT.
— Jimmy Butler

[1] Leviticus 16:7–9
[2] Leviticus 16:21
[3] Yoma 67a, The William Davidson Talmud
[4] Yoma 67b, The William Davidson Talmud
[5] ibid 66b

Aaron Sataloff