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Which Goat Will We Choose? #724

04/29/2022 06:49:20 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Acharei Mot
Which Goat Will We Choose?


In the early afternoon on the eve of the first Passover Seder, I stepped out of the Toronto airport terminal and caught the eye of a waiting taxi driver.

“I am next in line,” confirmed the turbaned driver. He was about 65, clad in a loose black top and pants. His black and grey beard glistened in the cool sunshine.

As he entered my parents’ address into his GPS, he narrowed his eyes, and glanced at the rear-view mirror.

“You are Jewish,” he observed.

“And you are Sikh,” I replied.

“I am honored to have you in my taxi,” he said.   “You are my first ride after two years staying at home during Covid.

“So maybe God put us together on this day.”

“Perhaps,” I smiled.

“So please share with me,” Surjan eventually asked me, “What is an important teaching of your religion?”

And I replied that we are taught to follow the words of the Prophet Micah, to “do justice, love goodness and walk humbly with our God.”

“Hmm…” he replied, as he sped on to Highway 401.

“So I will share a Sikh teaching with you,” Surjan said.

I watched as he extended his index finger forward, in the direction of this front windshield.

I thought he was pointing at a car that had just cut in front of us. But I was wrong.
“Notice,” he said, “that when I point my finger at someone in front of me – if you look closely, at the same time, there are three fingers pointed back at me.”

I sat silently and mimicked his actions. One finger pointed at the reckless driver ahead of us, and three back at me.

“So many times when we criticize someone else,” he said. “We are identifying something that exists in us – but three times worse.

I marveled at his simple wisdom.

At that moment, it occurred to me that one of the greatest casualties of the pandemic has been our inability to meet and learn from strangers.

I have missed interacting with those of different backgrounds. The Torah teachers us that that diversity is something to embrace.

The Talmud teaches Eilu V’Eilu Divrei Elohim Chaim. Roughly translated, “These words and those words are the words of the living God.”

Yet somehow during the past two years, the idea of embracing strangers has become lost in the distractions of day-to-day survival.

There is an ancient ritual involving two goats. It is referenced in this week’s Torah portion.

In ancient times, the priest would bring two animals to the temple: Same size, same color. One goat would be designated “for the Lord,” and the other, identical, carrying the sins of the Israelites, would be sent into the wilderness, perhaps over a cliff, for “Azazel,” which roughly translates as “hell.”
This is the origin of the word “scapegoat.”
This was an interesting point – which I reflected upon this past Thursday – as we gathered to remember those who perished in the Holocaust. We lit six yellow candles – one for each million of Jewish people lost – among millions of others murdered because of their religion, physical or mental “imperfection” or sexual orientation.

It is a trend repeating itself these days in too many western countries.

In 1939, the New York Chamber of Commerce fueled the prevailing climate of fear and mistrust by publishing a paper, penned by the Carnegie Institute, entitled: “Conquest by Immigration.”

The piece reinforced stereotypes, blaming immigrants for the country’s ills, accusing them of taking jobs from “real” Americans. Many were accused of bringing crime into the country or swelling the welfare rolls.
Very familiar.

Too often, in western countries, in recent years, immigrants have been “scapegoated” for diluting culture or placing a burden on the economy. A media industry has grown around this paranoia.
Yet, has any people been scapegoated more than the Jewish people?

In World War II, as the Jewish population was decimated, too few spoke out for us. So, what do we, as Jews, do now?

Indeed, parallels between the journeys of the Ukrainian and Jewish people are significant.

Like Moses, the Jewish president of Ukraine finds himself in the unenviable position of having to guide and protect the lives of millions. Within Russian world of ambition and misinformation, Ukrainians have been targeted as “scapegoats.”

Yet, as the Torah teaches, we are all descended from Adam and Eve. We are identical at birth.
All the more reason, during these times of war, blame and hatred for us to open our hearts to those currently in pain.   There are two goats before us – one passivity and one of action. Which one do we chose?

Our national economy is starving for labor, with “Help Wanted” signs dotting the doors of thousands of businesses. Isn’t this the time to open our gates?

The Torah portion for this week has something to teach us about scapegoating.  Our parents and grandparents benefited when this country welcomed millions during a time of oppression.

During the Ukrainian conflict, which eerily parallels the tragic events of World War II, it is time to turn away from our television sets and, as the Torah teaches, “take a step forward.”

This is the time to say, “No” to the scapegoating of a people who have become the victims of systemized torture, decimation, rape and murder.

Ever more the reason to channel what we have learned and experienced, and facilitate justice for others.  We can do so by supporting charities, which are assisting the Ukrainian people. It is as easy as clicking a button. It is within our means.

We can also support efforts to open our gates to those poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Let us continue to bless the Ukrainian people with safety and strength, as they fight for the freedom all people cherish and deserve.

It is time for us to choose which goat to back – the goat of peace or the goat of oppression.

The answer is simple.
Indeed, as a stranger named Surjan reminded me two weeks ago, the answer is as simple as the fingers on our hand.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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