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  • Writer's pictureEve Was Right

29. Who Cares if God Forgives Us?

The work we do when we forgive ourselves is all we need for redemption.


Parshah Acharei


TL;DR of the Text

Major Themes

  • Priestly conspiracies and greed

  • Shouldn’t God value our privacy? 

  • Scapegoats and the idea of effortless redemption

  • Does it even matter if God forgives you? 

  • Criminalizing poverty

  • Taboos and the reasons behind them


*Important attribution note: All quotes listed in this article are credited to the Artscroll Stone Edition Chumash. Here is an Extremely Clear Citation so I don’t get in trouble: Nosson Scherman, Hersh Goldwurm, Avie Gold, & Meir Zlotowitz. (2015). The Chumash: the Torah, Haftaros and Five Megillos. Mesorah Publications, Ltd.


Leviticus 16:1-3*

“Hashem spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron’s two sons, when they approached before Hashem, and they died. And Hashem said to Moses: ‘Speak to Aaron, your brother - he shall not come at all times into the Sanctuary… With this shall Aaron come into the Sanctuary: with a young bull for a sin-offering and a ram for an elevation-offering…” 

When we first heard about the death of Aaron’s two sons, I said it sounded like a plot point in a political drama. The leader was scared of losing power to the priests, so he killed off some priests and manufactured an excuse for it. This is more of the same. 


Now, Aaron was permitted to enter the Sanctuary as long as he had a huge amount of offerings and sacrifices, the same kinds of sacrifices the Israelites had to offer to God (or the priests) for any mistake, no matter how small. 


This can be seen in three ways.

 

  • First, it diminished Aaron in the eyes of the Israelites because he had to offer the same gifts as the rest of the populace to merit God paying attention to him. 

  • Second, and more charitably, no one was immune from what must have been extremely expensive offerings to dispel guilt. 

  • And third, it was all just a big conspiracy to get Moses as much power as possible in combination with the priests getting as many offerings (money) as possible. 


Leviticus 16:7-10*

“He shall take the two he-goats and stand them before Hashem, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Aaron shall place lots upon the two he-goats… [he] shall bring near the he-goat designated by lot for Hashem, and make it a sin-offering. And the he-goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be stood alive before Hashem, to provide atonement through it, to send it to Azazel in the wilderness.” 

Now we have a partial answer. Here we find the origin of the idiom “scapegoat.” There is no conceivable way this ritual served any purpose except to humiliate Aaron. It’s quite the juxtaposition of Moses, to whom God spoke personally, and Aaron, who was forced to scream his sins onto the head of a goat. This was a hell of a way to dilute the priests’ power. 


Leviticus 16:20-21*

“He shall bring the living he-goat near. Aaron shall lean his two hands upon the head of the living he-goat and confess upon it all the iniquities of the Children of Israel, and all their rebellious sins among all their sins, and place them upon the head of the he-goat.” 

This picture of extreme self-flagellation is the better of the two he-goat options. 


Honestly, though, does this sound godlike? If there is a God, do they even care about each and every one of our sins? Probably not. That would be a serious violation of privacy, and I hope privacy violations make any God feel icky. I bet what they prioritize is also, at the end of the day, the only thing we prioritize: whether people have learned and grown from their mistakes. 


Leviticus 16:29-30*

“This shall remain for you an eternal decree: In the seventh month, on the tenth of the money, you shall afflict yourselves and you shall not do any work…For on this day, he shall provide atonement for you to purify you; from all your sins before Hashem shall you be purified.” 

So. Right, and I mean right, at the end of the whole scapegoat episode, the instructions for Yom Kippur are introduced. Why? It seems so random! But is it? 


The “he” in this quote is not capitalized. Maybe it’s a translation error, but considering the surely obscene amount of money and political influence that went into this translation, I doubt they’d let it go to print without capitalizing the H in He, when He refers to God. 


So we can assume it isn’t an error. Who is the Torah talking about? The goat


If it is referring to the scapegoat, and, having reread this four times, I can’t see any other interpretation, then this is patently and overwhelmingly ridiculous to the point of absurdity. Maybe the absurdity is the point. 


Yom Kippur is supposed to be a day where God wipes your slate clean of sins. But is it even possible for anyone but you to wipe your slate clean? Not really. What is God going to do? Tell you, “I forgive you?” Who cares if God forgives us? 


Whether God forgives you is irrelevant compared to whether you’ve done the work to earn forgiveness. Have you changed? Do you do things differently, or are you at least trying? If so, you’ve probably either asked for forgiveness from the people you’ve wronged, made a commitment to change, actually changed, or some combination of the above. 


If you’ve done that, God has no active role. You’ve done the work! Maybe, at our most generous, we can say that belief in God provided the motivation. But if you already had the strength to do all the work, you would’ve found a different source of willpower. 


You’re the special sauce here, not God. 


Sad Pablo Escobar as God, waiting for people to stop trying to find ways for God to forgive them and start forgiving themselves

Yom Kippur can either be used as a time to reflect, or as a time to employ all your defense mechanisms to pretend you’ve been forgiven when you haven’t done any work towards redemption. It follows the same trend as the scapegoat. Maybe back then, a scapegoat could have gone one of two ways: it helped people visualize or articulate their sins, or it operated as a convenient way for people to pass the buck on their sins and avoid changing. 


Leviticus 17:3-4,7*

“Any man from the House of Israel who will slaughter an ox, a sheep, or a goat in the camp, or who will slaughter it outside the camp, and he has not brought it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to bring it as an offering to Hashem… it shall be considered as bloodshed for that man…and that man shall be cut off from the midst of his people… 

They shall no longer slaughter their offerings to the demons after whom they stray; this shall be an eternal decree to them for their generations.” 

What kind of people would need or be tempted to slaughter animals outside the camp? Poor people. People who couldn’t afford to pay the “offering tax.” The rule criminalized poverty. 


My thoughts on this topic have matured in the past few months. Before, I would’ve said the priests were trying to get a pagan society to conform to a new religion. Maybe it was their genuine motivation! Maybe. It’s far more probable that the slaughter and offering laws were motivated by preventing demons in the same way today’s priests are motivated to regulate sexuality in the name of casting out impurity. Demons have always been an easy excuse for religion to indulge in its most repressive tendencies. 


More importantly, even if people somehow had the money to sacrifice boatloads of food to demons in the barren desert of their exile, threatening ostracization is a bit extreme. They would have been casting people out into the literal desert for either holding to their original beliefs or being poor. Either way, it’s not a good look. 


Leviticus 17:8-9*

“Any man of the House of Israel and of the proselyte who shall dwell among you who will offer up an elevation-offering or a feast-offering, and he will not bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to perform its service to Hashem - that man shall be cut off from his people.” 

Ohhhh, I see you, I see you… they just wanted to make sure no one tried to worship God independently. God forbid!! A tale as old as time, or at least as old as the Protestant Reformation. What good is power if it isn’t centralized, amirite?


Leviticus 17:10*

“Any man of the House of Israel and of the proselyte who dwells among them who will consume any blood… I will cut it off from the midst of its people.”  

This obsession with blood is weird for a religion with lots of blood sacrifices. Up until very recently, I used to assume it was because blood carries a higher risk of transmissible diseases, but what if there’s a more sinister reason as well? There could be multiple reasons for this obsession. 


Blood is hard to clean off entirely, so this prohibition is another convenient source of religious OCD. It also further criminalizes poverty because if you can’t easily afford animals, you’re going to use every single bit of the animal, including its blood. 


The next paragraph justifies the rule because “blood is life.” Maybe this is the simpler explanation; the last thing I want to do is see nefarious intent where it doesn’t exist. But given the historical nature of this text, we have no idea. All of these are possibilities. 


Leviticus 17:15*

“Any person who will eat a [bird] that died or was torn…he shall immerse his garments and immerse himself in the water.” 

A pretty cut-and-dry case of pathogen containment. Best not to eat things if you don’t know how long they’ve been dead. 


Leviticus 18*

This chapter is too difficult to quote in its entirety, so I’ll summarize the key points. The chapter deals with laws against sexuality. 

 

The first group featured beneficial rules against incest, adultery, and strife-inducing intrafamilial sexual relationships (e.g., with daughters-in-laws and stepdaughters.) 


Another law prohibited bestiality, and this one is an interesting thought experiment. Why is bestiality taboo? I mean, yes, it’s revolting to consider, but why is it revolting? If we’re going from first principles, we can’t just say it’s wrong; we have to say why. 


I’d argue it’s because Earth’s animals don’t possess human-type consciousness and, therefore, can’t consent. It’s wrong because, by virtue of their inability to consent, humans are their protectors. It’s not always our job to safeguard their lives, but we must protect their… personhood. Dignity. 


Finally, the Torah mentions laws against homosexuality, and to be honest, I have no idea why these came into being. It was a common taboo, but in a polygamous era, if anything, male homosexuality would be beneficial to remove competition from the marriage pool. 


The only reason I can think of is the same reason people today are afraid of homosexuality: they’re afraid of their own sexual spectrum and latent desires.


*Again with the Extremely Clear Citation so I don’t get in trouble: Nosson Scherman, Hersh Goldwurm, Avie Gold, & Meir Zlotowitz. (2015). The Chumash : the Torah, Haftaros and Five Megillos. Mesorah Publications, Ltd.

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