I watched a small city of frantic birds wheel and squawk across our back yard. At first I thought they were crows, then realized with awe that they were sparrows chasing a huge marauding hawk back and forth over the house. They took turns dive-bombing the hawk so that it received a steady pummeling on its back and wings.
The unrelenting choreography ultimately achieved its goal. The hawk flew off and all the sparrows went back to tend their babies in the trees circling our house.
It is this sort of passionate devotion to the community that we find described in the Torah portion leading up to Passover. You can’t have fine choreography without plenty of rules and attention to timing. The Torah lays these out for everyone who wants to remain in God’s community. All kinds of boundaries are described here, especially sexual ones, making it clear that God has his hand firmly on the gene pool as well as on the moral standards of his people.
Part of God’s cleansing process for his community involves the famous two goats—one for the sacrifice itself and one to carry all the sins, errors, and mistakes of the community off into the dreaded wilderness to Azazel. I looked up Azazel and found lots of confusing descriptions. I venture to say that Azazel stands for a state of unforgiveness and separation from the goodness of God. The wilderness itself embodies this, as it fails to support life and is a wasteland of emptiness. I know that wasteland well. Before I discovered that God is indeed real and eternally present, I saw that terrible landscape yawning before me often. It haunted my dreams with its vast nothingness.
Off goes the scapegoat, poor thing, bearing all our sins away into this forsaken place, there to suffer and die slowly. I would much rather be the goat beneath the knife of a compassionate kosher butcher, to end my life quickly and painlessly for a life-giving purpose. In the sacrifice of both these beautiful, innocent creatures lies all our hope for a community that can withstand any evil, destructive storm and survive.
What does this have to do with the dive-bombing sparrows and the unwanted hawk? Those sparrows knew their own community; they were completely focused on their mission. God helps us identify ourselves within his community by laying out the rules and procedures so that we can recognize and respond to danger from outside.
If only we could match the fervor of that team of sparrows and pull together to protect each other, to win difficult battles together. Think what a fine world this would be if we could expand our hearts to care about each other like that without limiting ourselves to our own immediate community.