Yom Kippur (illustration)
Yom Kippur (illustration)iStock


The Torah reading for Yom Kippur is probably the origin of the habit of casting blame on others.

Sins committed in the Israelite community were transferred to a goat which was sent out into the wilderness (Lev.16; Mishnah Yoma 6:4). The high priest drew lots "LaShem", "for God" and "La’Azazel", "for despatch into the wilderness".

What did "Azazel" mean? Maybe it indicated the goat, maybe the destination in the wilderness. If it is a place, the terrain was hard and rocky; in folklore it is a place to which two fallen angels, Uzza and Aza(e)l, were banished because they had besmirched the Creation.

If the name indicates the goat, it possibly denotes "the one that goes" (in the Septuagint, "the sent-away one").

Various Midrashim think it symbolises a power opposed to God. These sources, plus the Dead Sea Scrolls, say that in the end all the negative forces in the world will be overcome and destroyed.

Maimonides (Moreh Nevuchim 3:46) regards the "scapegoat" procedure as symbolic: in order to eradicate all trace of sin it suggests despatching it to a distance (an example of "put it on a fast train to nowhere").

Unfortunately, transferring blame somewhere else is a prevalent habit, "passing the buck", accusing the other of doing things for which we ourselves are responsible.

The best approach is the Talmudic story of Elazar ben Durdaya (Avodah Zarah 17a) who after trying the scapegoating approach and blaming heaven and earth, night and day, came to the honest conclusion, "My fate depends on me myself".


Yom Kippur always brought great crowds to the synagogue. The numbers swelled even more when the time came for Yizkor and people came out of the woodwork, so to speak.

Even people who claimed to be atheists who are angry with God or question His existence found their way to their people and its memories.

The origin of the Yizkor ceremony derives from the Torah reading which depicts events "after the death of the sons of Aaron" (Lev. 16:1). The reference to the death of our ancestors gave rise to the idea that memorial prayers should be said by people who are bereaved, regardless of how long ago the death took place.

I know that some people whose parents are still (Baruch HaShem) alive tend to go out of the synagogue when the memorial prayers are said. It is a practice that really has nothing to commend it. It would be much better for people to stay in the synagogue and give thanks for the blessing of having parents alive.

Likewise it would be better to stay in the synagogue and say a prayer for the martyrs whose lives were lost in the destruction of European Jewry or in defence of the State of Israel.

If you say, "My father wasn’t such a tzaddik: why bother with his memory?" Maybe in God’s eyes your father was one of the 36 hidden saints, even though you yourself might be unaware of his value to Heaven…