Stretching to Make Sense (And Not Fully Succeeding)

Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16:1-18:30

D'Var Torah By: Robert Tornberg

This week's Torah portion, Acharei Mot, "After the death" [of two of Aaron's sons], continues the focus on ritual purity that began earlier in Leviticus, and begins the section of the book known as the Holiness Code. Included are commandments regarding sacrifice and food (Leviticus 17:1-16), limitations on sexual behavior (18:1-30), and a substantial section on the ritual observance of Yom Kippur (although the term "Yom Kippur" does not appear in the parashah) in the wilderness, and, presumably, later when the Temple stood in Jerusalem.

In the section on Yom Kippur, " . . . a law for all time: to make atonement for the Israelites for all their sins once a year" (16:34), we learn about the atonement sacrifices that the High Priest – in this case Aaron – must make on behalf of himself, his family, and the people. We are told what clothing he must wear for each part of the ritual – he has to change numerous times. And we learn the High Priest must make expiation for himself, his household, and the people.

In Reform tradition, there is a whole section of the afternoon service on Yom Kippur that recaps all this pageantry as part of the day's liturgy. It is especially interesting and somewhat curious that despite the fact that most references to the sacrificial cult have been removed from Reform prayer books, an abbreviated rendition of this section is included in Gates of Repentance (pp. 421-424)!

In our portion, one aspect of this detailed atonement observance is especially unique. According to our parashah, after Aaron has made expiation for himself and his household, he must take two he-goats to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and draw lots to determine which goat will be marked for sacrifice to God and which one will be marked for "Azazel." The latter will be kept alive and the following takes place:

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 individual. 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).

Traditional commentators and modern biblical scholars alike have argued over the centuries about the meaning of the word Azazel, as well as the significance of this unusual ritual. Rashi explains that Azazel is a rugged mountain. Ibn Ezra connects this term with pagan offerings to goat-demons. Nachmanides quotes Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer (a midrash collection), which suggests that Azazel is Samael, Israel's accusing angel. And the medieval Protestant scholar William Tyndale coined the word "scapegoat" from this passage. As an aside, in Modern Hebrew this term appears in the phrase "Lech l'azazel" meaning, "Go to hell!"

What a strange ritual! I find it very difficult to relate to the idea that my sins – in fact, all of our sins – could be dispensed with by placing them on an animal, and sending the animal off into the wilderness (or, perhaps, throwing that poor beast off a cliff). But, on the other hand, the text is in the Torah, and I believe I should not just dismiss it without looking for possible meaning.

It so happens that with this year's unusual calendar, the reading of Parashat Acharei Mot coincides with Shabbat HaGadol, the special Shabbat before Pesach. Because of this happenstance, my mind wandered a bit, and I wondered if I could find something in our Pesach observances that might shed light on my discomfort with this Yom Kippur ritual.

In flipping through the Haggadah my eye came to rest on a passage that makes me just as uncomfortable as I am with the goat designated for Azazel. It is a section that I have always skipped and it is part of the ceremony in which we welcome Elijah to our s'darim. There we read:

Shfoch chamatcha – Pour out Your fury on the nations that do not know You.
Upon the dominions that do not invoke Your name,
For they have devoured Jacob and desolated his home.
Pour out Your wrath on them, so Your blazing anger may overtake them.
Pursue them in wrath and destroy them from God's heavens.1

After reading this passage, which I find horrendous, to say the least, I was immediately reminded of a similar prayer, a b'rachah in the Amidah – said three times daily on weekdays, which I find equally objectionable. This "blessing" reads as follows:

And for slanderers let there be no hope; and may all wickedness perish in an instant; and may all Your enemies be cut down speedily. May You speedily uproot, smash, cast down, and humble the wanton sinners – speedily in our days. Blessed are You, HaShem, Who breaks enemies and humbles wanton sinners.2

So, here is my dilemma. There is so much I find awe-inspiring, beautiful, and meaningful in Judaism. How do I come to terms with this these three examples – and there are certainly others – of the "ugly," uninspiring parts of our tradition?

After stretching my thinking about the passages from the Haggadah and the Amidah it occurred to me that if I were a survivor of a hate crime, if I were a Holocaust survivor, if I experienced a pogrom, if I were a victim of any kind of violence at the hand of another – and there are numerous examples of this in Jewish history, it might – and I say "might" (as I have not experienced any of these directly) – be helpful for me to express my deepest feelings, my possible need for revenge, my hate for the human beings who perpetrated the acts – to ask God to take care of it for me. Would it lift the burden of a difficult past for me? I don't know. But, maybe, just maybe, it would put these "prayers" in a context that makes just a bit of sense.

That being said, does this potential insight help give meaning to the goat for Azazel? Maybe. If the whole community could really feel that God allows – commands – them to send their sins off into the wilderness, can the people also relieve themselves of these burdens from their past as well? Would it help?

Would it be helpful to you?

  1. From Psalms 79:6, 7; 69:25 and Lamentations 3:66 as translated in S. L. Elwell, ed., The Open Door: A Passover Haggadah (New York: CCAR, 2002), p. 86
  2. As translated in N. Scherman and M. Zlotowitz, eds., The Complete ArtScroll Siddur: Weekday/Sabbath/Festival (Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 1984), p. 107

Robert Tornberg, RJE, is a Jewish educator with nearly forty years of experience in synagogue schools, day schools,, and as the Education Director of DeLeT at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Currently completing the dissertation for his Ph.D. in educational administration and program evaluation, he plans to develop an independent consulting practice focusing on program evaluation and professional development for Jewish schools, synagogues, and other organizations.

Relieving Ourselves of the Burden of Our Sins, Not the Sins Themselves

Daver Acher By: Howard L. Jaffe

It is fascinating to note that the goat sent off to Azazel (whatever that actually means) "shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region" and shall be "set free in the wilderness" (Leviticus 16:22) and live, while the other goat, designated for Adonai, is to be slaughtered and sacrificed. Both are necessary; the ritual is incomplete if either one is missing.

In some ways, I envy the primal (though not primitive) experience of our ancestors. They had concrete rituals of worship – and even atonement – that allowed them to know they had worshipped properly, in ways that elude us today. The impulse to relieve ourselves of the burden of our miscues and misdeeds is a universally human one. The goat sent off to Azazel allowed the entire nation to move forward, knowing that each person had acknowledged his or her "sin," chet. (The Jewish understanding of the term chet, familiar to us from the Yom Kippur liturgy, does not mean "sin" in the Western understanding of the word. Rather, it is an archery term meaning "to miss the mark," and therein lies an entire world).

Our ancestors needed, as do we, a ritual that would free them from the burden of the many ways that they had missed the mark as human beings during the past year, without denying that they had done so. But they also needed a connection to God, and for our ancestors of that time that connection came through animal sacrifice, in this case, of a goat. That goat was a "sin offering" which, through its disappearance from the physical world, actualized that connection to God. The goat that was sent off to Azazel, however, disappeared only from sight. As long as that goat lived, the sins it carried remained in the world for an unknowable period of time.1 Reconciliation with and connection to God was actualized and affirmed, though one could never be sure just how long one's sins remained in the world . . . just as today.

  1. For a different interpretation see Mishnah Yoma 6.6

Rabbi Howard L. Jaffe is senior rabbi of Temple Isaiah in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Reference Materials

Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16:1–18:30
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 858–888; Revised Edition, pp. 769–794; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 679–700

Originally published: