Acharei Mot - Choose Holiness!

Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16:1-18:30

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg

Passover is still fresh in my memory. Many of us have favorite aspects of the holiday. I love the song "Chad Gadya (One Little Goat)" - though it's hard to put my finger on why. In the song, a baby goat gets swallowed by a cat, which in turn gets swallowed by a dog and so on, with each character or force stronger than the last until God smites the Angel of Death. There's something about the goat that gets swallowed up that stays with me. Two goats make an appearance in this week's Torah portion, Acharei Mot. As with the Passover song, there's mystery and meaning in the goats' presence in this week's parashah. These two goats enable us to choose a life of holiness.

The goats are selected by Aaron at God's instruction: " And from the Israelite community he shall take two he-goats for a sin offering...Aaron shall take the two he-goats and let them stand before the Eternal at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the Eternal and the other marked for Azazel" (Lev 16: 5-8). The goat designated for God is a sacrificial offering; the goat destined for the mysterious Azazel is left alive. Once the first goat was sacrificed, Aaron confessed the sins of the Israelites to the second goat as he placed his hands on it. This goat symbolically granted atonement. It was then sent into the wilderness. This biblical tale is where we get the modern term, "scapegoat," as the goat receives the blame for the Israelites' sins.

These goats are important metaphors of our spiritual experiences. Two grand choices are presented: 1) God, community, and intention or 2) self, individualism, and misdirection. Both goats must be identical in size, appearance, and value. The two goats present a paradigm, one that we face each day. One goat ends up as a communal sacrifice, symbolizing repentance, t'shuvahT'shuvahתְּשׁוּבָה"Return;" The concept of repentance and new beginnings, which is a continuous theme throughout the High Holidays. , and a life of holiness. The other goat, destined for Azazel, is burdened with our sins before being sent to wander and die in the wilderness. This Torah portion details the potential costs of choosing a life of holiness or one of aimless wandering.

Is there more to this goat wandering around in Azazel? Azazel may have referred to a demonic being that resided in the desert. Azazel may also have been a symbol of impurity. We might wonder, as did the rabbis of the Mishnah, how one goat could carry the sins of an entire nation. "Such a tiny scapegoat for such a huge load of sins?!" the rabbis ask (Yoma 6:1).

Jokes aside, there is a great deal of mystery surrounding this ancient ritual. However, one thing is clear: Azazel is the opposite of holiness. We can choose to make sacred choices or be like a lonely goat wandering, without purpose, in the wilderness. Our acts can build communities of love, friendship, and generosity or destroy those communities with selfishness, greed, and transgression.

I often have the privilege of speaking with bet mitzvah students about their journey into adulthood. I encourage them to recognize that their actions matter. Every word they think or say can serve to better our world; of course, the opposite is true, too. Too often we brush off the significance of our choices. After all, can I really make a difference? This week, we are reminded that we cannot afford to be wasteful with our choices; we must do our best to make choices that bless our communities.

These are difficult days. May we each continue to be blessed in our choices, appreciating our essential role. Let us see the vast potential for courageous acts of holiness. And when we stumble on a goat along the way, let's make the most of that experience, too!

Originally published: