This shall be for you a law for the ages, to effect atonement for the Children of Israel from all their sins, once a year. And (Aharon) did as the Eternal commanded Moshe. (Lev. 16:34)
Virtually, the entire book of Leviticus imagines God speaking to Moses. It is all instruction and no action. One significant departure into narrative is a striking little tale begun in Chapters 9 and 10, the ordination of Aaron and his four sons as priests (kohanim) for the people Israel, and the disastrous action of two of the sons that lead to their fiery death. The story concludes six chapters later, with the Torah portion, Acharei Mot. Depicted here—almost hidden among the thicket of priestly laws and regulations—is one of the most dramatic scenes in Torah: the first Day of Atonement.
The ritual can be briefly described. Charged with the responsibility of making expiation for the entire community of Israel, Aaron, as High Priest, takes two goats. By casting lots, one is designated as a sin offering, the other to be sent out into the wilderness. Aaron then offers a bull of his own as an atonement sacrifice on behalf of himself and his own family, and then offers the designated goat as expiation for the people. Finally, the remaining goat is brought forward. Aaron would lay his hands on the goat’s head, and pronounce all of the sins of the community. The goat would then be sent out into the desert.
Thus, the atonement of Israel is accomplished. The entire ritual has the feel of being theater, with Aaron as the principal actor, the goats, bull and lots as the props, and the community of Israel as the audience. We modern readers of the text might find the apparent marginality of the people strange; where is personal responsibility, where is the t’shuvah?
But every drama requires an audience, and the very success of the production is dependent upon the reaction of its observers. Consider then being one of the Israelites present as Aaron performed the Atonement Day ritual. The two goats are brought forward; which one will be “for God” and which “for Azazel?” No one—not even Aaron—knows until the lots are cast. Is this God’s will or pure chance? Once the designations have been made, the fate of one of the goats is immediately known–instant death. The goat dies for us! What should you feel at this moment: regret, relief, comfort, unease? And what of the other goat, the one symbolically carrying the transgressions pronounced by the High Priest? (And what of that litany of sins; how many did you actually perform, who might have performed others?) Upon leaving the camp, its fate is wholly unknown. It might die of thirst, fall off a cliff, be eaten by a predator. Or it might manage to survive, mate, breed, and live a long life.
The ritual is over, the crowd disperses, and yet we remain acutely aware of that goat–laden somehow with our sins–wandering in the wilderness. Atonement has been accepted on this day, but redemption is not complete; no more than the story of the wandering goat. We resolve to do better, but recognize that we will need to gather again a year hence, and send another goat, laden with our sins, out into the unknown once more.
And you shall love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18)
The double portion of Acharei Mot/K’doshim begins a segment of Leviticus that scholars call the Holiness Code. The segment follows a section of the Book that describes ritual purity, the status of individuals so that they can properly enter into the courtyard of mishkan, the tabernacle where God’s presence may be encountered. The purity of individuals lays the groundwork for the holiness of the community. (You shall be a dominion of priests and a holy people, the Book of Exodus proclaims.) Holiness moves one from the personal to the communal; from care for oneself to concern for others.
The atonement ritual involves the assembled and not just each person asking for God’s forgiveness. Parashat K’doshim thus begins with a call to all the people Israel: Be holy, for I, the Eternal, am holy. It continues with examples of being attentive to the needy and dispossessed within the community, culminating with the verse exhorting us to love our neighbor as ourselves.
The passage does not end there. More examples of holy behavior are given. Then we learn: When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them…you shall love each one as yourself (19:33-34). An overarching structure has been established. First, inherent in the laws of ritual purity is the notion that one must love oneself. Upon that sense of self-regard, one must now love the neighbor who, as the eminent nineteenth-twentieth Jewish thinker Hermann Cohen noted, is like you. Finally, once you have come to peace with yourself and with your Jewish neighbors, you are prepared to show the same regard for strangers in your midst.
As might be expected, the section at the beginning of parashat Acharei Mot, describing the ceremony for the Day of Atonement, is traditionally read in synagogues on the morning of Yom Kippur. A later section in the parashah, detailing sexual transgressions, is read in the afternoon. The traditional worship for Yom Kippur thus commences with how atonement is performed, and then explains why atonement is necessary.
Reform Judaism has chosen to replace both the morning and afternoon readings. To modern ears, both sections are off-putting: an ancient ritual involving animal sacrifice, and the notion that sexual activity is the exemplar of sin. In their stead, Reform Jewish practice has turned to a passage at the end of Deuteronomy and the section I have described in K’doshim. We are called upon to find our better selves: for our sake, for the sake of the covenanted community of Israel, and for all humankind.