Paragraphs two and three of the first chapter of Maimonides’Laws of Teshuva” invoke the Biblical case of the scapegoat, which, in ancient times, helped effect atonement for the Jewish people, not as a magic wand, but with human intervention as part of the process.

In ancient times, the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest in the Temple, offered a confessional prayer over a “scapegoat,” an animal selected to be cast away to the wilderness together with the people’s sins.
Maimonides rules that “the scapegoat atones for all the sins in the Torah, both severe (iniquities for which a death penalty or excision may apply) and less severe sins, whether committed inadvertently, or and whether the one who committed them is aware of them or not.” However, the atonement can only be effected when individuals have done teshuva–repentance. Without teshuva, the scapegoat does not atone even for less severe transgressions.

Maimonides teaches that, in the post-Temple period, without the ability to achieve atonement through a scapegoat, we are left only with teshuva to achieve forgiveness. Maimonides concludes with the following powerful testament to the power of true teshuva: “Wicked persons who engaged in teshuva at the very end of their life are forgiven, to the extent that none of their illicit behavior is known to them. [In the absence of the scapegoat and the Temple service], the very essence of Yom Kippur atones for sins today, as the Biblical verse (Leviticus 16:30) explains.”

It is hard for modern sensitivities to accept the notion of achieving atonement through animal sacrifice, or to appreciate the idea of relieving accountability for one’s prohibited behavior via someone or something else’s actions. After all, Judaism’s position on forgiveness centers around personal responsibility. This concept is familiar to the modern mind. Ultimately, humankind is given free choice how to behave. But that does not mean that behaviors have no consequences. 

Copyright © 2018 NJOP. All rights reserved.