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Torah Commentary
K'doshim (April 20, 2013)

Dr. Mark Weisstuch, Administrative Vice President

SCAPEGOATING. It is a dynamic of human behavior with which we are all familiar. A problem develops. It could be political, social, economic, domestic or personal, and those suffering from the problem cast blame on an individual or a group, imputing to them the source of the problem. In the Middle Ages, Jews were held responsible for the Black Death. Hitler pointed to the Jews as the reason for the economic and social travails of Germany. Today, some say gays are the reason for the decline in family values, and immigrants are indicted for the high levels of unemployment.

The concept of the scapegoat appears in this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot. However, its connotation in Leviticus is set in the framework of atonement, rather than in the contemporary context of falsely accusing some innocent group or individual for bad things that happen. Although there are some parallel nodes in the two processes, they remain different in intent and outcome.

The “scapegoat” in Acharei Mot is a central component of the Yom Kippur ritual as practiced in the wilderness Tabernacle and in the Jerusalem Temple. The purpose of the ritual centered on the purification of the sanctuary and expiation for the sins of the people. Aaron, and later the High Priest, was instructed, among a complex, interlaced sequence of steps, to select “two he-goats for a purification offering.” (Leviticus 16:5) Standing between the two goats at the entrance of the sanctuary, he was to place lots on them, assigning their fate — “one marked for the Lord and the other marked for Azazel.” (Leviticus 16:7-8) After sacrificing a bull and the one goat designated for the Lord, Aaron was told to lay his hands on the head of the remaining goat and “confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat.” (Leviticus 16:21) This goat was then sent into the wilderness; in later practice it was cast off a cliff and killed, carrying on it “all their iniquities to an inaccessible region.” (Leviticus 16:22)

The word “azazel” only appears in this chapter of Leviticus, and its meaning is lost. The notion of the scapegoat, which is derived from this ritual, is in fact a Greek mistranslation. The Septuagint read the word as “ez azal,” “the goat that departs,” and translated it as tragos apopompaios, meaning “goat sent out.” This meaning was retained in the Latin, but in the early English translation of the Bible, it was rendered as “escape goat,” which is how it was picked up in the King James version.

Three threads of interpretation have been suggested for the meaning of Azazel. The first sees the word as the name of the place in the wilderness to which the goat was sent. The second, the view that underlies the Septuagint translation, says the word describes the goat itself as a “goat that goes away.” The third connects the word to its use in post-biblical ancient Hebrew literature, such as the Book of Enoch, where the term refers to one of the deposed archangels who cohabited with human women (an episode recounted in abbreviated form in Genesis 6:1-4). The fiend angel, Azazel, is cast into the wilderness as punishment for his defiance of God and his subversion of the natural order. Thus, the word “Azazel” embodies a chain of associations: wilderness, expulsion, sin, evil, goat-demons.

The Yom Kippur rite described in the opening chapter of this parashah is complex in structure and dense with meaning. It unfolds along three axial dimensions: the purification of the sanctuary; the personal confession and ritual cleansing of the High Priest; and the expiation of the sins of the people through the acts of successive of confession, transference and riddance.

At first blush we may find it hard to relate to the ostensible primitiveness of the sacrificial protocol described here. But the overall impression of the ritual may have some resonance for us when we recognize the power that ritual engenders. Like all rituals, it works when we internalize its meaning. Rituals function like metaphors; they are objective correlatives of ideas, concepts and themes expressed in the poetry of physical actions. The heartfelt longing to make amends for misdeeds is expressed in the confession of our words and then confirmed through the action of laying our hands. The utterances stemming from our souls are concretized in symbolic choreography. The yearning to be able to wrap up our sins in a neat package, to send them away — far away — is realized symbolically in the expulsion to the far reaches of the wilderness of a he-goat that bears the burden of our sins. The ritual thus taps into and exteriorizes our profound desire to divorce ourselves from our darker impulses.

The Azazel ceremony finds vestigial expression in contemporary High Holidays rituals. Tashlich is the tradition of visiting a lake or river on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, after morning prayers, and casting our “sins” (in the form of breadcrumbs) into the river. Traditional Jews continue the Eastern European practice of “Kapores schluging,” wherein they transfer their sins on the eve of Yom Kippur to a chicken. Here, too, we witness the power of action in combination with words and intent.

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