top of page

The Escape Goat

Achrei Mot 2024

Our Torah portion this week, Achrei Mot (After the Death), contains a ritual that bespeaks an ancient stratum of religion and a deep, tortured chamber of the soul – the experience of our own failings, shame and inner unease.

“Aaron will take two goats and stand them before God at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. He will place upon them goralot (‘fates’), one marked ‘For God’ and one marked ‘For Azazel’ (the ‘desert demon’).”

Aaron expiates the sins of the people upon the goat for Azazel, and then sends the goat to Azazel, toward the desert, where the desert demon resides. Azazel, by the way, is used in Hebrew in some contexts as “hell,” as in the place toward which you direct people when they annoy you. Sin, as it were, is sent to hell with the goat, where perhaps sin came from, anyway.

The other goat, “For God,” is used as a sin offering. The Hebrew word “chata’at” might not refer to the Hebrew word for sin, “chet,” but rather to the verb “le-chateh” – to purify. “Sin offering” might mean “purity offering,” meaning the offering helps one return to a state of purity.

Even though we reject animal sacrifice, we can understand a sin/purity offering. We all want to remove our senses of guilt and shame. If we transgress, we confess, we try to find again our moral balance and achieve a sense of purity. Ever since the destruction of the Temple, the process of regaining moral balance and achieving a sense of purity is conducted through confession, requests for forgiveness, and achieving the experience of being right with God.

But what do we make of the goat “For Azazel,” more often called “The (e)Scape-goat?” The Scapegoat brings to the foreground an inner, usually unconscious region that cannot stand to bear a life gone wrong, or when we have done wrong. It is very difficult to experience our own failings, a world that has failed us, and to experience our own unease about ourselves.

An ancient, almost forgotten religious idea has us transfer the inner pain of life gone wrong onto the goat sent into the desert, to the Demon. In this ritual, it seems that the people are taking their own unease about themselves and a world gone wrong, and are sending that inner pain and unease to the desert on the back of the goat sent to the Demon. The clear spiritual advantage of this ritual is that we admit our own pain and unease in order to cast it into the desert.

Without this ritual and the belief in this ritual, we tend to find other ways to discharge our inner pain – on to other individuals and groups. The great American thinker Kenneth Burke (1897-1993, whose fine works range across the Humanities and Social Sciences) coined the term “scapegoat” as a social psychological term in his 1935 book, Permanence and Change. In that fascinating book, he discusses the experience of “incongruity.” Who I am and what my life should be like is incongruous with how I am and what my life is like now.

A wise and psychologically mature person sees the self, and the self with others, in a constant process of change. We don’t have power over many parts of our lives, no matter how much we wish it were so. With the power that we do have, we ought to seek to achieve a better vision of ourselves. We work toward the future. We also have some degree of power to transform with others and to transform the world. We also can work toward the wisdom to know the difference between what we can and cannot change. With what we cannot change, as Reinhold Niebuhr taught, we might aim toward serenity.

A less psychologically mature person sees the present as “permanent” and looks for simple causes upon which to heap blame for the way things are, or the way I am, or the way I feel. Forces beyond us might, indeed, be at least part of the cause of the way we are or the way things are. People typically desire, however, to simplify a complex world into facile distortions of reality.

In today’s world, we don’t have a scapegoat ritual that forces us to admit our sin, pain, and unease to ourselves. In order to admit our failings, pain, and unease, and not blame others, we must be insightful and very courageous.

Without inner honesty and courage, we tend to blame others for the disorder in our lives. As Kenneth Burke would say, we send the disorder within onto an “escape goat.” In the biblical ritual, we confessed. In our unrefined psychological states, we blame.

We send that inner disorder onto other things – other people, God, or fate. In order to avoid complex thinking, and the personal accountability that often comes with complex thinking, our psychological mechanism is to displace our inner “permanent dis-ease” on to a force outside of us.

Hence, hatred and haters, and I say this with a heavy heart. This tendency to place our inner pain onto others leads to hatred of all types - spewers of venom, ideological bigots, from the societal to the interpersonal. Scapegoating goes across the spectrum from the painful reality of verbal abuse and hatred in the family and civic spheres, all the way over to the evil rhetoric of purveyors of group hatred – and to atrocities and mass murder.

Every hatred is different, I know – race hatred, ethnic hatred, hatred of Jews, Muslims, and Christians, hatred of the right and hatred of the left – every hater and group of haters has their reasons. And every hatred is the same. Other people are not rights-bearing images of God; they’re only part of a hated group. The person you might hate does not have their own story; they only function as the villain in your story.

The commandment not to hate in next week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, is all encompassing, just as is the commandment to love.

When our psyche is under unbearable stress, we have an existential decision to make. We are own High Priests. Do we make other people or groups of people our scapegoats? Or do we accept that we, other people, and the world are complex and that wisdom is needed to find our way through this thicket of life?

There are many things we can do once we understand ourselves and the world better; hatred of the self and hatred of others rarely creates the change for which we ought to strive.

4 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page