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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Finding Meaning — Four Decades Later

The number of the people of Israel shall be like that of the sands of the sea,
which cannot be measured or counted;
and instead of being told, “You are Not-My-People,”
they shall be called Children-of-the-Living-God (Hosea 2:1).

I thought it was a bad mistake.

Over forty years later I wondered whether it was meant to be that way. If so, why?

More than four decades ago, I was given a tape and the text of the haftorah that accompanies Parshat B’midbar: Hosea 2: 1-22. I had no idea what I was chanting. I did not know the rabbi, whose raspy voice I listened to every day. I never met with anyone – not the rabbi, not the cantor, not a teacher. Not a single soul spoke to me about my bat mitzvah, its purpose, or the significance of anything I was doing.

I chanted a text I didn’t chose, that had no relationship to the actual time of my birth, and which I could not claim as my own. Hosea was an accident; my bat mitzvah was scheduled for administrative convenience.

In my bat mitzvah dress.
In my bat mitzvah dress.

Still: I loved Hebrew letters and was thoroughly entranced with the melodies of haftorah trope. I studied until I had each word note-perfect. Words I did not understand took root in my body. Decades later, I could still sing my haftorah.

I had sung it with sweetness, with devotion. I was unschooled and untaught. I was also mysteriously and inexplicably attached to Jewish cadences; a fact I would, even now, be unable to explain.

Decades later, I discovered what I’d actually sung. I cringed.

In this text from Hosea, Israel is humiliated and punished for her transgressions. God is obviously male, and violent. Though He promises to take Israel back despite her sinful behavior, His language is that of an abuser. Punishment, then gentle solicitation. Threats, then tender pledges of everlasting love, of certain commitment.

My birth parsha was Acharei Mot. For a long time, I wished someone had given me the choice. I would have liked the  text from Amos, which some Jewish traditions read with Acharei Mot. I would have wanted to sing about the God of many peoples, a God who not only acted to save and redeem Israel, but the Ethiopians, the Philistines and the Arameans, too (Amos 9:7).

I’d go back to Hosea each year and do battle with my own reactions. I’d sing the verses in my head and the sound would transcend the meaning in a way that felt simultaneously beautiful and wholly unacceptable.

I could remove some verses, understand them as a transcendent form of foretelling, as a truth-promise I wanted to believe in. After decades of teaching classes on the Holocaust, the opening verse, in which Hosea promises that the people of Israel will someday be innumerable as the sands of the sea, evoked consciousness of our loss.

It also evoked hope: a primal wish to see a people healed and whole.

But I never could get around the feeling that I should have chanted Amos, not Hosea.

This past summer, I sent in the second piece I am writing for a ten-volume series on Jewish spirituality. The first was on Mourner’s Kaddish. The second was on Havdalah. As I was finishing the Havdalah piece, I noticed that it was quite close to the word count of the Kaddish piece.

The Havdalah piece focused on the practice of magic in Jewish history and tradition. It centered on Queen Esther’s arrival in the siddur for just such a moment as Havdalah is – a liminal, enchanting time.

I believe in magic.

I sent the work off to my editor and told him that I had included a spell to make sure he liked it. Later I explained: There were exactly 4171 words in both pieces.

My editor wrote back, and told me that 4171 was the exact gematria for a particular verse in Tanakh.

Hosea 2:1. If this is your pasuk, your verse, he joked….

I wrote back to say that it might well be “my pasuk.”

Now I must ask why.

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