The Jewish people have often been cast as the proverbial “scapegoat.” When millions died during the Black Plague, the Jews were accused of poisoning the wells. Blood libels accusing Jews of drinking the blood of gentile children (frequently associated with Passover) were all too common throughout history. Medieval (and not so medieval) rulers often blamed the Jews for their own calamitous economic policies.
The concept of the scapegoat is actually of Biblical origin (Leviticus 16). God commands Moses to instruct Aaron, the High Priest, to take two identical goats and cast lots upon them in order to choose one goat for God and one for Azazel. The goat given to God is sacrificed in the Tabernacle/Temple, but the other goat is sent to its death in the wilderness as an atonement.
The description of this ritual, which was performed on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is difficult to understand. There are numerous attempts to define Azazel. While Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, 1040-1105) defines Azazel as a “hard, rocky place,” other commentators have stated that Azazel is the name of a reputed demon.
The goat sent to Azazel is the source of the scapegoat concept. Through the Septuagint (the translation of the Bible into Greek), the goat came to be known as the “goat that is sent away.” This goat (symbolically) carried the sins of the Israelites, just as the blame for a crime or a catastrophe is placed on the modern scapegoat.
One cannot, however, forget the other goat, the one offered to God. Perhaps this goat was meant to remind the people of their own personal sin offerings and their own personal repentance. No sin can be wiped away by blaming others. Only by turning directly to God and asking for His forgiveness can sin be expiated.
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