Parashat Acharei Mot

Acharei Mot is a parashah that resonates with us. Precisely, it is the parashah that we read on Yom Kippur. It is the one that surely reverberates with us every time we re read it because it lists those restrictions regarding sexual conduct and forbidden relationships.


It is interesting how after the liberation of Pesach and the exit from Egypt, when each of us could feel entitled to any behavior that pleases us in recognition of the new condition of "I am no longer a slave, I do what I want now", the Torah comes to set limits for us so that we do not stray from the right path. This is, at least, a very clear realization of the fickleness of the human being in the face of the freedoms and the temptations that they entail. An express recognition that we are prone to error and deviation, especially when it involves our passions.


And Acharei Mot has a particular treatment of these errors.


The story tells that Aharon had to take two male goats (seirim) and cast lots on them. One would be sacrificed to the Lord and the other would be sent alive to the desert carrying all the sins of the people of Israel, in a kind of collective purgation through the little animal.


Beyond the feelings that an act of this type can bring to us today, it is striking to read that the ritual was different for each one of these kids: in the first case, the kid was sacrificed directly by the High Priest, the Cohen haGadol, without any special ritual. On the other hand, the one who would be abandoned to its fate in the desert was subjected to a particular ritual in which the High Priest would place his hands on it and declared all his own transgressions, his family’s and the whole people’s in general.


The difference, at least, draws attention. Why was there, on the one hand, a public declaration of transgressions or errors and, on the other, nothing was said?


Why is there such a discrepancy?


Our tradition perceives in us two types of errors: those that we can recognize in public—those that we committed against our neighbor or even against God, but that we allow ourselves to let our fellow men know of in a vidui (confession or public acknowledgment of our transgressions).


Furthermore, there are those mistakes that we keep inside, acknowledging that we have also made them, but which we do not dare to share. We admit to them, but it would be TOO MUCH to expose them publicly, thus we keep them a secret only declared before God.


The first are the ones that the kid took with itself to the azazel, to the desert. The latter were released in an act of silent repentance in the sacrifice of the first kid.

Obviously, we no longer sacrifice animals to atone for our responsibilities and mistakes in our actions. What we must do is be aware of our limitations and review our procedures, to constantly check if we accumulate those that we must disclose in public or those that find relief within us. In both cases, though, the responsibility is always ours, for what we declare as much as for what we keep to ourselves. For what we do and for what we fail to do, perhaps because of some petty or selfish decision.


To the little goat that was sent to the desert, the priest conferred what we call Smichat Yadayim. This consisted of placing the hands on the little animal in an act of transmission of the errors, as we have already said. Smichah, in Ivrit, is also translated as “trust”. Those mistakes were entrusted to the little animal. And that trust transmitted an inner reassurance that allowed the person to start over from scratch. Without mistakes, without transgressions, to be able to face existence in this world again in a careful way.


But it seems that none of this is possible if first there is no admission of our mistakes. We cannot cleanse ourselves, nor start over without that truth that begins within us. That truth that cannot always be exposed to others. That is already a second step.


Our people have been making a mistake (at least one) for about 200 years. An error through which we assume that we can and should judge our brothers by the way in which each one expresses their Judaism.


And we are going through a period that takes us from Yom haShoah to Yom haAztmaut passing through Yom haZikaron, in which history has shown us by force that we are ONE PEOPLE. That, just, as our fathers who founded the State of Israel said, we may not be uniform in the practice of Judaism, but we can be united in a common homeland. And this public error hides the private error of intransigence and discrimination even within our own People of Israel.


The act for Yom haShoah that we shared yesterday brought together different versions of Jews. It was a proud little example of how we should create moments together, despite our differences, and respect those differences, both in others and in us.


May we be honest with ourselves. May we see our actions and words in a critical way. May we manage to place our trust in someone who helps us get out of our guilty confinement, to achieve a better bond with those around us and review our mistakes. It is the only way to start correcting them. And may we repeat moments of respect and dedication, like the one we just experienced remembering those who lost their lives simply for being Jews. Regardless of what denomination they were.


Gustavo Geier