May 4, 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?


Mottel said...

How is what the Rabbi said a white lie? While the exact particulars of the ritual are not described in the torah, they almost never are (Rosh Hashanah is a Yom Teruah - a day of blowing . . . blowing what, how? We are commanded to slaughter meat as Moshe was taught - when and what? etc.)

The narration of what happened, as recited in Musaf on Yom Kippur, is from the Mishna Tractate Yoma Chapter 6. The crimson thread is discussed in Mishnayos 6 and 8.

As such, besides the fact that we believe in the oral tradition etc. The mishanyos at their very least are a recounting of what transpired during the Second Temple period.

Chaviva said...

I don't believe I ever said the rabbi was telling a white lie? I was merely relating that the rabbi was inaccurate in his assurance that what he was telling me WAS in the TORAH text, when it was not. The WHITE LIE bit was me being creative and etymologically curious!

Mottel said...

Sorry about that - the combination of

"I've come to find out that the embellishment of the cliff and the string comes from the later writings, not the Torah. ." and then

". Either way, I think I've got a compelling case for where "white lie" really came from. "

Made me think that the white lie was referring to the statement of the Talmud!

Jess said...

lol you have to think as these text as from people of the times... scapegoating has existed in every culture since the earliest times. Animals such as goats, snakes, and lizards as well as human beings were used to carry the village sins away from the community. so you can't look as it as a white lie, but as cultural context.

Chaviva said...

Jess, I'm not calling scapegoating a white lie. Re-read the blog post! It'll make sense :) I'm saying that the tradition of the messenger chucking the goat over the cliff and waiting till the red string around the goats neck turns white, then going back to the camp to tell everyone their sins were atoned for, probably didn't happen every year. The string probably didn't always turn white! Thus, back at camp, he had to tell a white lie that it DID turn white!

Jess said...

no i understand that.... but its not a white lie, considering the context. for example, every year the pope goes into this cave before easter to see Jesus... is the pope lying? who knows, its context and thats why its called faith. every culture has such issues.

Daniel Saunders said...

My trusty Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable states that a white lie "is light or mild, qualities associated with white."

In any case, would such a lie have been a positive thing? Surely if the people needed to do more teshuva they needed to be told. After all, the prophets never held back from such rebuke.

Torah said...

Very interesting!

Chaviva said...

@Jess Well, the point here is that it's a theory, and I have mine. You don't think it's right, and that's cool. But that's why I presented it as a theory of mine!

@Daniel I agree on your teshuva comments, definitely. The prophets had no problem at all telling the people what they needed to hear, so why wouldn't the priests? No clue.

@Torah Thanks :)

Anonymous said...

The good old "midrash says" has a lot on this particular idea for the parsha, very interesting

furman said...

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

Interesting. If it were me, I'd take this as a sign to take my parsha discussions elsewhere. But you seem to have much more patience with this kind of thing.

Which isn't, of course, to say that the midrash isn't cool - but why not start from the actual peshat starting point? You know?

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