Responsibility for Our Own Sins
Yom Kippur Eve 1955
A Sermon from “A Modern Orthodox Life.”
by Emanuel Rackman
Jews, alas, are not unfamiliar with the term “scapegoat” . We have played the role too often and too well not to be aware of its tragic implications. In the middle ages, whether it was during a black plague, or after a Christian defeat at the hand of Moslems, we Jews were held to blame and we paid with countless lives for conditions over which we had absolutely no control. In modern times, it was a Hitler who held us responsible for Germany’s defeat in World War I. It was a Sultan who holds us responsible for Morocco’s difficulties with France. It is a Nasser who holds us responsible for Egypt’ s internal difficulties. The Jew is the classic scapegoat of medieval and modern history. But even that does not disturb me as much as the fact that Christians regard us as the people who created the idea of the scapegoat. They say of our Day of Atonement service that it is the source of the idea and it, therefore, behooves us to understand what the ritual of this sacred day purports to convey.
Yes, that ritual does involve a scapegoat the sending of a goat into the wilderness, there to perish for our sins. As a matter of fact the term “scapegoat” is derived from this ritual and just as Jews in ancient times permitted a goat to bear the guilt of their sins, so in modern times the Christian world used the Jew as their own scapegoat. But this gave rise in Christianity to a doctrine which played a notorious role in Christian theology the doctrine of vicarious atonement the doctrine which recognizes that someone else s suffering can evoke forgiveness for my sins.
What I want to submit to you this evening is that the ritual which gave rise to the scapegoat idea is completely misunderstood. On the other hand, the ritual which Jews performed on the Day of Atonement in the Temple was specifically designed to teach the very opposite it was intended to teach us the doctrine of free will and individual responsibility the doctrine that every man has it within his own power to decide whether he will be saint or sinner, whether he will be angel or devil. Paraphrasing the words of the poet, we are the captains of our own fate, the masters of our own destiny.
How did the ritual dramatize this basic thought? The immortal Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch provides the answer. Two goats, identical in appearance and size, were bought and brought together. Lots were cast. One was chosen for the Holy of Holies. The other was chosen for Azazel. One was chosen for the loftiest and most sacred purpose imaginable. The other was degraded beyond the lowest degradation. One attained unto the holiness of the holiest compartment of the temple. The other was sent to the wilderness rejected, laden with the sins of all. The one stood for the peak of spiritual ecstasy, the other for the totality of a community’s evil.
These two extremes are also available to man. Man too can aspire and reach the Holy of Holies. Or he can so sink that he merits the hate and ostracism of his fellowman. Animals are not so. They have an almost negligible margin of choice. They are what they are and cannot change anything about themselves. The poisonous snake cannot help being what it is nor can the loyal dog fail to respond to its affectionate master. But for the human being there is a choice so wide that it ranges from the saintliness of a Moses to the treachery of a Hitler. Ours is the power to soar to the highest or sink to the lowest.
This point is beautifully illustrated in the story told of Rabbi Chaim, the Zanzer Rabbi. He once addressed his disciples and said, When I will have to face my Maker on Judgment Day, I am not afraid that he will ask me why I was not a Lawgiver like Moses. I will simply tell him that I did not have the genius of Moses. I am also not afraid that he will ask me why I was not a philosopher like Maimonides. Again I will tell him that I was not as gifted as Maimonides was. But what will I say to the Lord when he says to me, Reb Chaim, why weren’t you simply Reb Chaim, why weren’t you what you yourself could have been? To that question I will not be able to reply on Judgment Day.”
And that is the challenge of the ritual of the Day of Atonement. What will any one of us say to our Maker when He asks us on Judgment Day why we weren t what we ourselves could have been! Aye, we cannot all be geniuses. We cannot all cure cancer or polio. We cannot all master Torah and write philosophy. We cannot all compose music or create art. But every one of us can be a saint or a devil. That Judaism teaches. And of that the Day of Atonement reminds us.
But I explain all of this tonight, friends, not only because I want you to know that the Day of Atonement emphasizes individual responsibility, but also because this message needs special emphasis in our day. And it needs special emphasis because there is no end to the present use of scapegoats. Not only on the international scene, but in every personal and social situation, we look for a scapegoat to assume the blame for what we fail to be.
We fail as children or as students our parents are at fault.
We fail as parents our children are at fault.
We haven t the finest character then it must be our older or our younger brother or sister that corrupted us.
We do not espouse the finest values our friends are at fault, our society, our milieu.
No matter what the sin or failure for which we are called to account, we invariably have our scapegoat. True it is that much can be blamed on our families, our surroundings, our society. But there must come a halt to this pretending that the human being is incapable of responsibility for what he himself is or becomes. We must call a halt to the notion that nothing is within our control. Judaism teaches the reverse everything is in God s hands except the character that you and I shall have. We are the captains of our fate and the masters of our destiny. And let us not seek scapegoats forever and ever.
And now, friends, you will understand one other important point with regard to the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac with which I began my holiday preaching.
In Judaism, we are taught that Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac to prove his love to God. Mind you, it is man who gives of himself to prove his love of God. In Christianity, however, the basic idea is that God sacrifices His alleged son to atone for man’s sins. God’ s alleged son is the scapegoat for the sins of Christians! No wonder that for centuries thereafter the blood of Jews could also be used as scapegoats to atone for the sins of non-Jews! But the difference is characteristic. We Jews affirm that we individually must decide for ourselves, and atone for our guilt. Christianity started with an alleged son of God atoning for them and continued seeking further scapegoats ever after.