Thursday, May 12, 2016

Scapegoats, Sacrifice and the Campaign Trail

Scapegoats and Sacrifice
Aharei Mot
Rabbi Joseph Black – Temple Emanuel, Denver
May 6, 2016

My Dear Friends,
Yesterday, I was at the State Capital to deliver the morning prayer – as I do every Thursday – when I noticed a group of people in front of the building who were holding a sign that stated:  “Today is the National Day of Prayer”
Coincidently, yesterday was also Yom HaShoah V’Ha-g’vurah -  the day of remembrance of the victims of the Shoah and the bravery of those who resisted their Nazi oppressors.  I was both surprised and somewhat gratified when I thought, at first, that the juxtaposition of these two days was deliberate. And then I paid more attention to the people who were gathered in front of the Capital in celebration of the national “Day of Prayer.”

The first thing I noticed was a sound that was very familiar.  Someone was blowing a shofar – and doing an impressive job, I must say.  And then the particpants started marching  - passing by me as I was parking my car.  I saw people wearing tallitot and kippot. I saw people wearing Tzitzit.  Israeli Flags were flying.  Then I saw a group of people carrying a mock-up of the Ark of the Covenant – where the 10 commandments were kept – replete with cherubin and angels.  They were dancing to what sounded like Israeli music – dancing the hora, as a matter of fact – but the words were in English.  Then I looked even closer.  Mixed in with the kippot, Shofarot, the Ark of the Covenant were a smattering of crosses and “Jesus Loves Me” t-shirts.  I felt like I was in a parallel Universe.  What was going on here?  Later on in the day, after searching the internet (thank you Rabbi Google), I discovered that I had stumbled upon what was being labelled a “Jericho March” by the fundamentalist Christian conveners of the Denver commemoration of the National Day of Prayer.  Like Joshua in the Bible, participants were marching 7 times around the State Capital.  If we were we to take the Joshua/Jericho theme to its logical conclusion, I guess that the goal of the march was to have the walls of the State Capital “Come tumbling down…”  I’m sure that would have upset the legislators inside –especially after we spent all of that money re-guilding the Capital’s dome…. But, thankfully, no one was harmed in the shofar-blowing and faux-hora dancing.
It’s a pretty fair assumption that the people wearing Tallit, kippah, tzitzit and dancing with the mock-up of the Ark of the Covenant probably had a different take on the meaning of those symbols than I did…..
While they may have appropriated Jewish symbols and ritual items –possibly even buying them from our own gift shop – they had no conception of what they meant to authentic Jews – and probably didn’t care either. 
I didn’t engage them.  They were gone before I was able to get out of my car, so I wasn’t able to ask anyone about what they were doing.  Even if I would have been able, I wasn’t sure what to ask:  “Excuse me – why are you appropriating my sacred symbols?” didn’t seem like a very polite thing to do early on a Thursday morning.  Besides, there were a lot of them and just one of me …. More on that later.
The act of appropriating and instilling a personal agenda into ancient texts and rituals actually brings us to this week’s parasha, Aharei Mot.
 The basic idea of the text is that Aaron, the High Priest, is commanded to choose two goats and, by drawing lots, mark one goat for sacrifice, and the other to be set free to roam in an area called “Azazeyl.”
The first goat is set aside to be sacrificed in order to purge the Israelites of their sins.  The second goat becomes symbolic repository of the sins of the people.  When it is sent into the wilderness of Azazeyl, the people see their sins literally walking away.   
It actually is a highly efficient process.  The community is rid of its sins through two public and highly symbolic acts – one of sacrifice, the other of communal banishment.
In many ways, these two goats and the way in which they are dispatched serve a powerful purpose in unifying the community.  Yom Kippur, as described in the torah, is a “do-over” day – when acts of sacrifice and contrition level the playing field between God and the Israelites.
Of course, this concept has evolved over the centuries. The only remnants of this practiced can be found in the obscure ritual of Kapparot, (or Kappores) that is practiced by a few ultra-orthodox communities.  (See hyperlinks for more information…) 
Today, the term scapegoat has another meaning entirely. As Jews, we understand all too well the power and ramifications of becoming identified as the scapegoat for all of society’s ills.
As I said earlier, yesterday was Yom HaShoah –Holocaust Memorial Day.  This sacred and somber 24 hours was established shortly after the creation of the State of Israel.  On Yom Ha-Shoah we honor the memory of the 6 million Jews and 5 million others who perished in Hitler’s machinery of death. 
Study of the Shoah has taught us that Anti-Semitism was not unique to Hitler.  The architects of the Final Solution were able to draw upon thousands of years of Jew-Hatred and scapegoating to convince the masses that mass murder was justifiable.  What was unique about the Shoah, however, was in its lethal combination of hatred and technology that paved the way for the systematic extermination of a people.  Without Auschwitz, Treblinka, Maidanek and the other death camps; without a seamless system of transportation, without masterful propaganda and the means to distribute it, an entire generation of Jews would not have been murdered by the Nazis and their willing partners.
So we need to ask ourselves, as we move beyond Yom HaShoah:  Has the world learned anything from the Holocaust?  It’s hard to tell.
Looking at Europe today we see an alarming rise in Anti-Semitism – some of it originating in radical Islamic propaganda and some that has been ignited by blowing on the glowing embers of latent, centuries-old Jew hatred – disguised all too often as anti-Zionism - that originated in the early Christian Church.  We also see a backlash against Muslims, immigrants and anyone who does not fit the “classical” Caucasian stereotype in the countries that make up the EU. We know all too well that when times are difficult – or when people are TOLD that times are difficult, scapegoating is rampant.
If we look into our own nation - focusing especially on the current Presidential primaries, it is now clear that rhetoric of personal vilification, bullying and fear-mongering has paved the way for a general election that will be unlike anything most of us have ever seen.  Scapegoating has become a powerful tool for ensuring votes and creating simple solutions to very complicated dilemmas.
In a nation that elevates personal responsibility into a touchstone for ethical behavior, it is becoming increasingly clear that this concept does not necessarily mean that we call ourselves into account for our actions – but rather, all too often we look for others to blame:  whether they be members of the opposite political party, or immigrants, Hispanics, Muslims, Transgendered men and women, or a myriad of other categories that are easily vilified and targeted for bullying.
As I think about the upcoming election in November, I am truly afraid.  Many pundits and observers are using the term “revolution” to describe what is taking place in both our electoral and governance systems.   It is quite clear that, come November, there will be casualties.  Some say that civil discourse and compromise will be the victims. Others posit that the two-party system is on its last legs.  Others say that such radical change is exactly what we, as a nation need to set ourselves on a pathway to prosperity.
I truly don’t know where we are headed – but, if we look at our torah portion we can see that the two options it contains - sacrifice and scapegoating – are both in play, and neither are attractive or sustainable.  We cannot allow civility, compromise and cooperation to be sacrificed on the altar of personal aggrandizement.  At the same time, we need to fight vocally against attempts to foist the blame for all of society’s problems on the back of the most vulnerable among us.
I wish I had had the time and the presence of mind to say something to those fundamentalist Christians who appropriated sacred Jewish symbols at the State Capital to fit into their own narrative of religious and political relevance.  My failure to do so remind me of the disconnect between words and deeds.  Our job today – in this ever-changing and ever-consistent world in which we live – is to be vigilant to call out hypocrisy, scapegoating and demagoguery whenever and wherever we see it. 
I for one will not remain silent.

Shabbat Shalom.