Acharei Mot and Little Girl (or: No More Scapegoats)

Little Girl and Ralf

On Wednesday, I noticed a small brown and black dog running at full speed across our front lawn.

I sighed.

We live near a highway rest area. Some people go to that location to drop off unwanted pets. But when I got on a jacket and went out to look, the dog was gone.

The next day, when my husband, Ralf, and I came home from work, we saw the same dog in our front garden.

“Oh, no,” I said. “Honey, I think we have a stray.”

My husband does not much like dogs. He worked as a security guard to help pay college costs when he was young and had to deal with aggressive dogs, who attacked and bit him. When Ralf is around other people’s canines he is polite, but distant. He does not pet their animals, he avoids them.

So it was odd – even strange – that after collecting our mail I turned to see him crouching down and calling to the strange animal.

Life as I knew it then turned upside down. The dog headed toward my husband and literally climbed onto his lap. He murmured softly to the creature, who repeatedly tried to lick his face.

I moved closer. The animal was starved to the bone. Her pink collar was frayed. She ran off to pick up the cadaver of a squirrel, then dropped it and came back to the house. I went inside to get her a bowl of water and cat food and then to call the appropriate authorities.

I came out to take turns with Ralf. Between wolfing down bowlfuls of cat food she sidled up to me to be petted and loved.

“Little Girl,” I said, “you smell pretty ripe.”

Over the next half hour we found a rope to tie to Little Girl’s collar and promptly fell utterly, completely in love.

She was not a pretty dog. She was, however, the very soul of love.

Nevertheless: our cat was not happy that she was outside his window. My husband has allergies, and we knew we couldn’t keep her.

“I feel guilty,” he said.

Watching her being taken away was painful. That night, I lay awake thinking of her beautiful, loving, smelly and starved self on my husband’s lap. I woke several times to worry about whether she would eventually be put down because no one would have her. In the morning, I called the shelter.

Little Girl, they told me, already had a possible home. I shouldn’t worry, they told me. “She is so lovable,” I was told, “we can guarantee she won’t be put down.”

Still, I gave them my number. “Please call me if she doesn’t find a home,” I said. “I’ll find her one if I have to.”

And then I sat down to reread my birth parsha, Acharei Mot.

Two goats, I read. One for the sacrifice and one to be sent to Azazel. I thought back to every Yom Kippur, when I chant about how we found, every year, the scapegoat for Israel.

As Jonathan Sacks explains in his book, Covenant and Conversation, some commentators have claimed that the name is actually a compound noun: It means “the goat (ez) that was sent away (azal). And when an William Tyndale produced the very first English translation of Tanakh, he rendered Azazel as “the escapegoat.” So, Sacks says, we have come to our present-day iteration of that word.

Every year I chant about an all-too human practice: making animals bear our burdens. Animals are there for our sake, to comfort and to surprise us. They offer their playful or sleepy selves to be stroked because, in such great part, we are calmed, we are made happier by petting them.

In this parsha, the escapegoat carries our burdens and bad behaviors away for us. We have atoned, we are cleansed.

Little Girl was sent away from whoever owned her as the very expression of human, ugly behavior. She was sent into a wilderness and she was starved of food and comfort and safety. She was a scapegoat.

All of us are engaged in banishing animals in one way or another: we destroy their habitats, poison them with our own products, and hunt them down – even now – for their body parts. They are bearing our burdens.

Just now I want to chant this passage, imagine those two goats, reimagine their fate and set them free.

May there be no scapegoats for Israel.

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Bible is Real: Rahab’s Stormy Relative

“It’s not history.”

I explain: We have no corroborating evidence. The Hebrew Bible is our sole source for the stories and tales we tell about Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob (and we can say the same thing about all the matriarchs, too). We have to reach King David’s time to find texts that affirm even the smallest measure of Israelite history as Tanakh tells it.

Scholars have found no trace of hundreds of thousands of ancient slaves traveling along the pathways the Israelites are supposed to have taken during the Exodus. We don’t have evidence that Israelites were monotheistic – just the opposite, if you look at the archeological evidence.

The Hebrew Bible (read Tanakh) is a minority report, I tell my university students. A likely all-male, educated elite wrote its books over many centuries and from many different historical and theological perspectives.

Our classroom conversations are around the role of mythical narratives, and their inestimable value and power for defining the human-divine experiment. It’s interesting stuff, a way to travel on the ancient wild side. And my students connect with it. They discover that it is relevant. In our classes, bible becomes real for them in ways they never expected.

Example: The recent discussion of Joshua 2 in my class on women in the Hebrew Bible. The story features a Canaanite prostitute who announces an imminent victory for the invading Israelite nation and negotiates safe passage for herself and her family. Rahab, who lives in the very walls of Jericho, manages to hide two Israelite spies sent by Joshua to scope out the city’s defenses. She bluffs her way out of an interrogation conducted by the king’s men and sends them into the countryside on a crazy goose chase after the spies (who are, in the meantime, sunning themselves on her roof). Afterwards, she heads upstairs to deliver an oracle to her Israelite guests in true Deuteronomist style.

We have heard, Rahab tells the Israelite spies, how YHVH dried up the waters of the Sea of Reeds to allow the Israelites to escape Egypt. We know how God helped the Israelites defeat powerful Amorite kings. Jericho’s inhabitants are quaking in their boots, she says, “for the Lord your God is the only God in heaven above and on earth below.”

Based on her intimate knowledge of Israelite narratives and her surety about the Israelite future, she follows her oracular prologue with hard-hitting negotiations. She’s protected them; now, they owe her. She stipulates her conditions and the Israelites do the same. There are sanctions for both sides if anyone fails to meet their obligations. Rahab demands an oath to seal the deal, the spies agree, and they, in turn, give her a scarlet cord as the physical sign of their agreement.

The day we discussed this story, my students spent time marveling at the way Rahab managed all the men in the story. She was tough, clever, aggressive in ways they could admire, and did.

One student pointed out that a Canaanite prostitute had effectively doomed the king and his entire administration.

She’s the ruler of Jericho,” she said.

“Oh, my,” I said suddenly. I stood very still.

“What is it, Dr. Thiede?” one of my students asked.

“I just had a thought,” I said slowly.

Everyone waited patiently. My students are Very Nice People.

“You know how I am always reminding you that we have to treat these narratives as stories, tales with a lot of mythical elements?”

“Yes,” one said slowly.

“And that’s exactly what we’ve been doing,” I continued. “Except it just occurred to me that we are living in a time when a pornographic actress has been sending a lawyer who is the king’s man on a wild goose chase to secure her silence.  She has declared a contract void because the king hasn’t signed it. She is posing a serious threat to the king’s credibility. Who is ruling Washington, DC, these days? Or,” I added, “at least, CNN.”

“Omigosh!” one of my students said. “Stormy Daniels!”

“Ha,” I added. “The bible says: Be careful about tangling with someone connected to sex work. It may not be history, folks, but Bible is real.”

Class ended. I headed for my office, looking at the sky. Clouds were gathering. As might be expected, I thought. And just as you thought yourself. Just now.

It’s another stormy day.

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