In the first part of this week's parashah, Acharei Mot/K'doshim, the Torah's fullest description of Yom Kippur appears. (Leviticus 16:2-34) But Holy Days, holidays, and festivals develop and evolve as human life changes. The Yom Kippur we celebrate in the twenty-first century is considerably different from the ritual and ceremony described in Leviticus 16. For example, one word prominently used in this chapter is a term with which most contemporary Jews are completely unfamiliar, namely, the word 'Azazel.'
Two goats were brought before the High Priest, who cast lots to decide which of the goats was to be designated 'for God' and which 'for Azazel.' Laying his hands upon the head of the goat designated 'for Azazel,' the High Priest confessed the sins of the entire congregation. This goat was then led forth to a high, rugged cliff in the wilderness, from which it was cast down as atonement for the sins of Israel.
Some translate the word 'Azazel' as 'scapegoat.' But falsely charging a person, group, or thing as the cause of the evils that befall us is a relatively modern idea. It was not the way of atonement in biblical days any more than it should be in ours. We cannot attribute our shortcomings to anything or anyone else. The authors of Leviticus were neither so primitive nor so naive as to hold this goat responsible for the sins that it carried.
I am persuaded by Mordecai Kaplan that 'the meaning of that ritual was that you had to get rid of evil before you tried to do good.' The primary source of evil is always to be found by looking within. The need to begin with ourselves, to look within to find the cause of evil in our own midst, has not changed. We do not need Azazel in our day, but we do need Yom Kippur. We also need to understand that the efficacy and value of Yom Kippur are for those who observe it during the whole year. The practice of mending our ways by approaching God with contrition and resolve to improve should not be limited to a single special day of judgment. One of our rabbis said, 'A person is judged every day, every hour, every moment.'
This is not to say that the observance of a special day of repentance has no value. The first Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv referred to Yom Kippur as a 'Temple in time,' an apt metaphor. As Professor Louis Jacobs explains, 'God can be as little contained in a day as in a place. But just as human beings have found value in setting aside special places of worship for the God who is outside space and who embraces all of space, there is nothing incongruous with setting aside a portion of time for the concentrated worship of the God who is outside time and who embraces all time.'
We humans are influenced and inspired by periodic reminders of the truths we profess. The original Temple, like our own temples, was erected so that God would dwell in the hearts of our people. Like our ancestors, we are moved by the impressive rituals that take place within our temples, such as those performed on Yom Kippur. But God does not, as it were, come down to earth for only one day of the year. If Yom Kippur is observed in the proper fashion-with no scapegoating but rather honest introspection and resolve to change-it will bring us nearer to God throughout the year. May our sacred spaces in our temples of time inspire us to come closer to God each and every day of our lives.
Questions for Discussion
- How can we create mini-Yom Kippurs-opportunities for abbreviated or accelerated processes of t'shuvah?
- Who or what are the scapegoats of our time, the pass-the-buck mechanisms by which we slough off the consequences of our own misdoings? How can we confront and/or avoid them?
For Further Reading
- For a full exposition of the biblical Yom Kippur as well as the role of Azazel, see W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary. UAHC Press, pp. 858-869.
- Sidney Greenberg, Teaching and Preaching: High Holyday Bible Themes, A Resource Book, Vol. 2: Yom Kippur. New York: Hartmore House, 1974, pp. 9-86.
Rabbi Charles P. Sherman is the rabbi of Temple Israel in Tulsa, OK.
Rabbi Sherman offers us eternal lessons for the long-lasting effects that Yom Kippur can and should have on us throughout the year. Particularly poignant at the halfway mark between last Yom Kippur and the next is the envisioning of each day as an opportunity to become aware of our sins and our failings. Truly the conception that we as Jews must examine our actions with a critical eye only once a year is as false as it is pointless.
The Torah portion of the week, Acharei Mot/K'doshim, provides us not only with lessons about how to become aware of our failings, as Rabbi Sherman so ably teaches, but also with the means by which our atonement should take effect. In Hilchot T'shuvah, 'The Laws of Repentance,' Maimonides asks the question 'What is true repentance?' He answers, 'If the repentant individual has the opportunity and the ability to sin and refrains because the individual has repented rather than because the individual is afraid or because that person lacks the capacity to sin, then that is true and complete repentance.' How does this week's Torah portion, with its focus on the modes that effected atonement as well as the expiation of sin in ancient times, aid us on our modern search for reflection, repentance, and transformation?
In describing the ancient mode of the Yom Kippur rituals in the Temple, the Torah states: 'Aaron shall bring forward the goat designated by lot for God, which he is to offer as a sin offering [chatat], while the goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be left standing alive before God [italics added] to make expiation [kapparah] with it and to send it off to the wilderness for Azazel.' (Leviticus 16: 9-10) This teaching begs the question Why is the goat laden with sins to be 'left standing alive' while the other goat, pure and empty of the sins of the people, is sacrificed?
The Hebrew terms for these different kinds of offerings are our clues. The first goat is sacrificed to God as the chatat, sin offering. Its purity is the key to God's accepting this sacrifice. So, too, are our pure offerings of repentance accepted by God on Yom Kippur. The second goat is not sacrificed but remains alive. Kapparah, the true expiation of sin, is effected as this goat is sent out from the midst of the community, carrying with it the sins of the people. And yet this goat, laden with the sins of the people, must remain alive. So, too, are our 'sorry's for what we have done' only given true validity on Yom Kippur when we carry with us the memory of our transgressions, alive in our hearts and minds, to remind us not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Yom Kippur remains with us all year long when we hear God's loving voice in two ways. The first is with the recognition that before God there is always the opportunity for repentance. The second is with the acknowledgment that our transgressions do not disappear, even with our most fervent longings for forgiveness. Rather, they must remain alive in the wilderness of our memories, to remind us about where we have gone wrong.
Questions for Discussion
- What kind of t'shuvah did you seek this past Yom Kippur?
- What are the lessons you gleaned from your transgressions that you wish to retain in your memory?
- How can you strive not to bring the same transgressions to the next Yom Kippur?
For Further Reading
The Journey of the Soul: Traditional Sources on T'shuvah, translated and edited by Leonard S. Kravitz and Kerry M. Olitzky, 1995.
Rabbi Scott Hausman-Weiss is the Spiritual Leader of Congregation Shma Koleinu in Bellaire, TX.
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
K’doshim, Leviticus 19:1-20:27
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 894-907; Revised Edition, pp. 797-813;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 701-722