The unexpectedly uplifting story of the scapegoat in Torah
Table for Five: Achrei Mot
In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
And Aaron shall place lots upon the two he goats: one lot “For the Lord,” and the other lot, “For Azazel.”
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat, VP of Community Engagement, Board of Rabbis of Southern California, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles
Spiritual leader and author Eckhart Tolle noted that “after two ducks get into a fight, which never lasts long, they separate and float off in opposite directions. Then each duck will flap its wings vigorously a few times thus releasing the surplus energy that built up during the fight.” Afterwards, the ducks “float on peacefully as if nothing had ever happened.”
By contrast, people tend to rehash arguments in their minds for hours, days or even years after the conflict ― unable to regain their equanimity. “We are a species that has lost our way,” Tolle explained.
The strange ritual where the high priest placed the sins of the people symbolically on a goat and sent it into the wilderness seemed to serve the same purpose as a duck flapping its wings. It offered people a way to release their past grievances and mistakes and return to the present moment renewed.
How can we translate this ritual into a contemporary medium? During Neilah on the beach at Open Temple, congregants attached pieces of paper with their sins written on them to balloons which were released into the sky to float away on the wind.
This release is needed more frequently than once a year. How do we release each day’s troubles to regain our peace? Do you create art, dance, meditate, or take a walk? How do you flap your wings?
As it turns out, we have a lot to learn from the goats and the ducks.
Benjamin Elterman, Screenwriter, Essayist, Speech Writer at Mitzvahspeeches.com
The word Azazel was translated into English by William Tyndale in 1530. He took the literal translation of Azazel, “the goat [ez] that was sent away [azal]” and came up with the word “escapegoat” which overtime would become scapegoat. Ironically, this word has the opposite meaning of its source. Where scapegoat refers to someone that takes the blame for something they are not guilty of, the goat sent to Azazel is our recognition that a part of ourselves must be faced, dealt with, and cast out.
The two goats must be identical. One goat is sacrificed in the holiest place in the world and the other is thrown off a cliff. There are popular stories such as the Prince and the Pauper and The Man in the Iron Mask, that tell of how twins separated at birth lead vastly different lives if not for circumstances. And one might think the same idea with this mitzvah, as the thing that decides which goat goes where is a lottery. Chance.
But the Torah is implying something different. While a goat is at the mercy of circumstance and chance, a human being has free will. We have the choice to cave to our evil inclination or to overcome it. By seeing the separate directions in which these two identical animals go, it makes clear for us how low we can fall or how high we can soar.
Nicholas Losorelli, Second Year Rabbinical Student, The Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
With Pesach just behind us, having purged and purified our homes of chametz and reenacted the exodus from Egypt at our Seders, Torah portion Aharei mot is now flinging us forward into thinking about Yom Kippur (can you hear it now, Rabbis already saying, “The High Holidays are coming!!!”). This week we transition from the private home-based rituals of Pesach, into considering the more public act of teshuvah, atonement.
During Temple times there was one peculiar feature of Yom Kippur: two goats, one marked for God and one “marked for Azazel”. Azazel? What or who the heck is Azazel? Rashi says Azazel is a craggy distant desert cliff, and others say Azazel is some kind of goat-demon. Whatever Azazel is, we know that this goat somehow physically carries off Israel’s sins to some public Azazel-space, and in this way, sin is like a tangible force of nature. It’s hard for the modern mind to grasp sin being like an earthquake or gravity, because we often think of sin as ethical and intangible. However, aren’t our actions tangibly felt in both body and mind, with far reaching aftershocks, the consequences of which need to eventually come down to earth?
Our Torah teaches us that there’s value to making the invisible visible by physicalizing teshuvah, because sometimes something doesn’t feel real until we put it into words, and often isn’t resolved until we put it into action. So, it’s never too early to think about teshuvah, because after all, the High Holidays are always coming.
Nili Isenberg, Judaics Faculty, Pressman Academy
The Talmud (Yoma 67b) states that the ceremony of the goats is an example of a commandment for which the reason is unknown. Certainly this passage is full of mystery. At face value, if one offering is “For the Lord,” for whom is the other offering? One Midrash (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer) goes so far as to suggest that the second offering is a bribe to Satan!
More recently, the second goat in our verse has become associated with the term “scapegoat,” which is laden with even heavier meaning in this week of Yom HaShoah. How can we mention the word scapegoat without thinking of the six million who perished in the Holocaust? Rabbi Soloveitchik (1903-1993) commented on the lottery process by which two identical goats were selected for their respective fates: “Casting of lots… epitomizes the instability, uncertainty, and vulnerability which characterizes human life generally, and particularly the destiny of the Jews.”
Regarding the scapegoat, Maimonides (1138-1204) reflected that “there is no doubt that sins cannot be taken off the shoulder of one being to be laid on that of another, but these ceremonies serve as an allegory, to bring fear into the soul.” If so, what fear do we obtain from seeing the suffering of one little goat? And what fear do we obtain from the suffering of six million? And what fear do we obtain from all the suffering and death around the world today? Let this fear speak to us and bring us to action.
Rabbi Michael Barclay, Spiritual Leader, Temple Ner Simcha, Westlake Village
The moment of death is as powerful as the moment of birth, and this verse reminds us of this power as it prepares us for Yom Kippur.
Although Maimonides states that a sin cannot actually be transferred to the Azazel scapegoat, this ritual awakens the deepest part of our souls and makes us hyper-aware of each moment of life through the awe of conscious death. This truth has been viscerally experienced by any person who has been to a kapparot ritual (sacrificing a chicken before Yom Kippur), which developed from the Azazel scapegoat after the destruction of the Temple. While Maimonides may be right that the sin is not actually transferred; the awareness of our personal actions, sins, responsibilities, and blessings is exponentially increased through being present at an animal sacrifice: at a conscious transition of life to death.
In our modern lives we are distanced from this powerful moment as our food just shows up on our table, the leather is already tanned and made into our belts and shoes. But being present at the moment of death is something that awakens the deepest part of our souls and inspires us to live consciously and with respect for every millisecond of life.
Although rejected by animal-rights activists, this ritual of Azazel and its descendant, the kapparot ceremony, have power and value both individually and for the world. Someone once said that “Sacrifice is where violence and the sacred intersect”. It is terrible and magnificent at the same time, but truly leads us to personal awareness and real acts of tshuvah.
Image by Michael Block via Pexels
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