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Azazel, the Scapegoat

Jed stands with the Shabbos congregation, mutters the Amidah by heart while steeling himself for the upcoming Kaddish. He looks over at the Gutmans in the front row, their boy a bar mitzvah today. A good boy, who answered the rabbi’s questions correctly, recited the rules for laying our sins upon Azazel the goat, sending him off into the wilderness. A tough parsha for a boy, Acharei Mot. Proud family.

At his own grandson’s bar mitzvah 15 years ago, Jed had beamed at the congregation during his aliya. So proud until a year ago, when Matt drove seven hours from San Francisco to Los Angeles just to visit Jed and shock him in person with his news. “A boyfriend, Grandpa,” Matt said. “No, Grandpa, not a fad.” “No, Grandpa, not rebellion.” “But Grandpa, to me it’s totally natural.” “Mom’s better with it than Dad, but — ”

“There are no buts,” said Jed. Plain and simple. Sacred words mean what they say. As if there were ambiguity. No shrimp means no shrimp, not “okay at a restaurant, just not in the house.” Not on Shabbos means not on Shabbos, not “a couple hours at the office after services just to catch up.” No means no.

“But it’s your grandson,” the parents argued in the following weeks, first one parent, then the other, then both. “Your only grandchild. How could you treat him as dead?”

Today we don’t kill abominations by stoning; we’re not savages like those fanatics in Iran. We stopped animal sacrifice; we pray instead. Symbolic execution of the violator: Kaddish. “For whosoever shall do any of these abominations, even the souls that do them shall be cut off from among their people.”

The Amidah’s over; Jed sits.

The commandments are the commandments. Jed learned that in cheder nearly 70 years ago. Positive precepts and negative. “Thou shalt” and “thou shalt not.” What’s to question?

Matt’s parents won’t mourn, so Jed must. To honor the Almighty. To honor the grandson he adored, the boy Jed taught to ask the Four Questions, to shake a lulav, to spin a dreidel, the boy at whose wedding Jed, as grandfather, was supposed one day to cut the challah and make hamotzi. That boy’s Jewish soul died one year ago. This new pagan soul that replaced it — Jed doesn’t know from it. Won’t.

To prove his commitment, every Jewish male must sacrifice his flesh. To prove his devotion, every Jewish father must be prepared to sacrifice the flesh of his flesh. The lesson of Abraham and Isaac. To sacrifice less than everything proves nothing. Ani ma’amin, murmurs Jed. I believe.

Jed and a few others rise to say the mourner’s Kaddish. He feels the eyes of the congregation. They know it’s not his dear Esther’s yahrzeit, blessed be the Almighty who spared her this. They know whom he mourns. Some expressed condolences after he first said Kaddish last year for Matt — still actually alive somewhere, immersed in sin — others held their sons close and avoided Jed’s eyes. Cowards.

Jed glares at the Gutmans, all hugs and whispered mazel tovs. His heart fills with shame. He wishes he were dead.

Daniel M. Jaffe, editor of “With Signs and Wonders: An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction,” lives in Santa Barbara, Calif.

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