Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Little White Lie

I was delighted last week with the Torah portion, Acharei-Kedoshim. We were discussing it at shul when I met with the rabbi and during a discussion of the casting off of sins on the head of the goat, we got into the whole "scape goat derives from this" discussion. It wasn't so much of a discussion as a mention, but as the rabbi related more to the story about the red string tied around the goat's neck turning red after it was thrown off the cliff ... wait. What? I stopped the rabbi.

"This isn't in the Torah text, is it?" I inquired. "Yes, yes it is," the rabbi responded.

I didn't have a chumash handy, so I continued, thinking maybe I'd forgotten the text. After all, it had been a year since I last read the portion and was mostly going off memory. The rabbi explained that someone would take the goat out to a cliff, and chuck it over with a string attached to its neck. Once this red string turned white, the person could go back to the camp and tell the Israelites that they were kosher, their sins were atoned for. This got me thinking that if the text is where we derive the scape goat term, then maybe this is also where we get the concept of a "white lie." We discussed whether every year, without fail, the string turned from red to white. It was the messenger's duty to return to the camp from the cliff to say "Bravo! You passed the test! You're sin-free!" But what if it didn't turn white. What would the messenger do? Would he lie to the people? After all, it wasn't so much important that they were all clear and free, but rather that they kept believing in the idea of the act. So, it was suggested, maybe every now and again the messenger came back and had to tell a lie -- but it was a good lie, it kept the people strong, hopeful, and believing. It was, in essence, a "white lie."

I asked the rabbi what he thought about the concept, and he thought it was an interesting suggestion. So I've been waiting for about a week to look into it. Needing a break from my paper on the illustrious (not) Imma Shalom, I Googled the parshah to make sure the text was right.

Much to my dismay, this isn't a Torah narrative. The goat gets sent off into the wilderness, darn't. That's all the Torah says. I remember being frustrated originally when reading it. I mean, how do they know the goat hasn't wandered back around camp? Bringing their sins back to roost? I'd taken the rabbi's statement as gold, but I've come to find out that the embellishment of the cliff and the string comes from the later writings, not the Torah. .

Talk about a bummer. The differentiation, as an academic and as a Jew, really, is important to me. Either way, I think I've got a compelling case for where "white lie" really came from. What do you think?