The Strangers in the Camp

Both the Israelite and the stranger are given equal status in the sacrificial cult.

Commentary on Parashat Achrei Mot, Leviticus 16:1-18:30

Provided by the Jewish Outreach Institute, an organization dedicated to creating a more open and welcoming Judaism.

Immediately following his sons’ deaths, Aaron is instructed to don his priestly garments and proceed with the sacrifices. In other words, he is told to continue life as usual. Among the various instructions is (Lev. 16:26) one concerning the goat sent to Azazel. This animal (what we call the scapegoat) symbolically carries away the sins of the Israelites as it is driven off into the wilderness. Aaron is then instructed to wash his clothes and bathe his body in water. Only afterwards is he permitted to reenter the camp.

jewish outreach instituteAfter he concludes his work with the scapegoat, the priest goes on with his life as usual. There is no regard to what happens to the scapegoat (or the burdens carried by it). But as long as Aaron properly cleanses himself of the scapegoat and its contagion, he is able to enter the community as if nothing happened. The scapegoat is forgotten–but that is, perhaps, its purpose. By the community casting its sins on the now exiled scapegoat, it relinquishes all responsibility for them.

Israelite vs. Stranger

Throughout chapter 17 of Leviticus, the articulated laws are applied to both those who are Israelites and those who are “strangers in the camp.” By virtue of the assignment of these laws, both the Israelite and “the stranger” are given equal status in the sacrificial cult.

If you have any doubt, consider that “I am the Lord Your God” is repeated regularly in the text. This is the divine seal of approval to any statement–important to note irrespective of who we consider to be the author or authors of the Torah text. And if either the Israelite or the stranger chooses not to follow God’s instructions, they are to be cut off from the camp. This appears to be the ultimate punishment–to be cut off from the camp. This is a punishment whether the transgressor is an Israelite or a stranger.

By bringing these two notions together we are reminded that the camp is made up of both Israelites and strangers. Unlike the scapegoat (and those who live on the periphery of the community, particularly the intermarried, have become this generation’s scapegoat) the Israelites cannot simply write off the strangers and be done with them in the same way. The strangers are integral to the Israelites’ camp and equal partners in their well-being.

Of course there are those who are afraid of “strangers” who have entered the camp, afraid that the presence of those of other religious backgrounds will dilute Judaism. That notion leads us to holiness (separateness), what makes us unique as a people–details to follow in chapter 19.

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