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Scapegoating, An Ancient Tradition

by | Feb 19, 2004

The story is told of the guy who was turned down for a job as an announcer at a radio station. When a friend asked him why he thought he didn’t get the job, he stammered, “B-b-b-because, I’m J-j-jewish!” Fill in whatever grievance in life you like, and whatever ethnic group you like, it’s all the same. This is not to say that discrimination does not exist; of course it does. But very often the reason for our failures lie within us, and there is a natural human tendency to deny the painful truth about ourselves.

In a recent column in the Washington Post, Robert Samuelson has dared to point the finger, not at the perpetrators of corporate fraud, but at those millions of Americans who were eager partners in the biggest get-rich-quick scheme in history. Although he agrees that the criminals at the top should be punished, he asserts that their malfeasance is by no means the exclusive cause of our economic woes. All those who invested an estimated $1.1 trillion in mutual funds in the 90’s in what he calls “the democratization of greed” had a hand in inflating the bubble that has now so ruinously burst upon us. Much of what is going on now is a form of scapegoating, of shifting the blame.

The idea of the scapegoat comes from the Bible; but don’t blame it on the Jews. Like a lot of things that come from the Bible, a great deal is lost in the translation. In Temple times, on Yom Kippur a goat bearing the sins of the people would be sent off to its death in the wilderness outside Jerusalem. If all went well, a red cord that had been tied around its neck and a corresponding one in the Temple itself, would miraculously turn white. Thus, the idea of the scapegoat, of an innocent being onto whom one can shift his own sins.

Of course, it wasn’t as easy as that. It was not just a trick whereby their sins were painlessly cast off onto another. The whitening of the cord only occurred if the prayers and repentance of the people were accepted by G-d. Divine forgiveness had to be earned. And there were years when forgiveness was not forthcoming, and the red cord failed to turn white.

Today, scapegoating represents a certain kind of hypocrisy, of placing the blame on someone else. Anyone can be a scapegoat. Throughout their wanderings, the Jewish people themselves have been the scapegoat of the world, blamed for every ill from communism to capitalism, from the poverty of the Mideast to the destruction of the World Trade Center. Their persecution did not alleviate any of the problems of which they were alleged to be the cause.

Why do people engage in scapegoating? Consciously or otherwise, people think that they can go on living happily ever after if they can somehow avoid responsibility for whatever has gone wrong, whether it be on a societal level or in their own personal lives.

Judaism teaches just the opposite. On Yom Kippur we take the blame. We take the blame for all of our sins: theft, lying, fraud, conspiracy. Indeed, in Neilah, the closing prayer of the day, theft is the sin singled out above all others. Not necessarily outright theft; it also includes cheating, paying wages late, even depriving others of sleep, stealing their rest. We acknowledge our transgressions large and small and ask to be forgiven.

But this does not mean that Yom Kippur is a sad and solemn affair, and that we should feel burdened by guilt. On the contrary, the Talmud describes Yom Kippur as one of the happiest days in the Jewish calendar. This was the day on which Moses came down from Mount Sinai with a new set of Ten Commandments after the first set of stone tablets were broken at the sin of the Golden Calf. Moses and the people had repented, and this marked G-d’s forgiveness for their sin. That seminal event determined the character of the day for all time. And it demonstrates that the payoff for facing up to our problems is twofold: not only do we relieve ourselves of the burden of denial, but the reward for our effort may be an outpouring of love and knowledge as vast as the Torah itself.

Facing up to our shortcomings and asking forgiveness (from G-d and from those individuals we have wronged) is the pathway to happiness. The very fact that G-d has ordained such a day, in which we can attain forgiveness shows that He wants to forgive us, wants us to live and do better the next year. This in itself is a great reason to feel not sadness or depression, but joy, on Yom Kippur.

As for the economy, the road to recovery lies not only in stricter regulation and stiffer penalties for corporate crime, but in a moral recovery, as well. Who can say that the “infectious greed” that has eaten away at the American economy has been limited to the princincts of Enron and Arthur Anderson? Who can say on this Yom Kippur that he is pure and done no wrong?

Reprinted with permission from