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Torah Commentary
Acharei Mot (May 5, 2012)

Hannah Goldstein, Rabbinic Intern

BEFORE WE HAD the machzor, the High Holiday prayer book, we had the scapegoat. In Acharei Mot, we read about the first rituals that accompanied the Day of Atonement. God told Aaron to take two male goats before the tent of meeting: one intended for a purification offering, the other intended for Azazel. The Torah: A Modern Commentary calls the goat for Azazel, “the most embarrassing feature of the ancient ritual.”1 The appearance of what can be interpreted as a “demonic being” in the ritual for the holiest day of the year is difficult to reconcile with our notion of Jewish ritual. What does a demonic being have to do with atonement?

Because of the uncertainty about how to understand this ritual, there have been many attempts to neutralize Azazel. It was suggested that Azazel actually referred to a geographic location. Rashi translated Azazel as a “rugged mountain with a steep cliff.” Rabbi David Kimchi believed that Azazel should be read as two words, “az azel” or “the goat went.”2 In post-Talmudic literature, Azazel is named as a rebel angel.

Our text does not explain what happens to the goat after being sent away. The biblical text does provide a clear guideline for the preparation of the scapegoat. After the ritual slaughtering of the goat used for the purification offering, Aaron must approach the goat designated for Azazel.

Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man. Thus the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:21-22)

Instead of the confessions of our time, the biblical Yom Kippur included a tactile transfer of sins and then a ritual that literally cast these iniquities out of the community. While the destination of these sins is uncertain, the ritual reveals an acknowledgment of the difficulty of letting go. Even when we seek expiation from our wrongdoing, it is difficult to truly allow ourselves the comfort of watching them depart into an unknown wilderness.

Although Yom Kippur is still many months away, our annual reading of Acharei Mot reminds us that we constantly are balancing between living with the consequences of mistakes made, and allowing ourselves the comfort provided by pardon. We may not know the true effect of our sins. Just as the commentary struggles to explain, we may not fully understand the outcome of our wrongdoings. Although each of us struggles with the guilt of a bad decision or an insensitive comment, at times we must take compassion on ourselves and allow our mistakes to be led away, like a goat into the wilderness.

1 Bamberger, Bernard J., The Torah: A Modern Commentary. (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1979), p. 160.

2 Ibid., p. 160.


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