Thoughts on Parashat Acharei Mot

Human beings dominated the world initially not by their physical power but by the power of intellect. The physical dominion came long after with the beginning of the modern industrial era. Over the centuries of this development we have gained more and more control over the natural environment and other living beings. By the forces of our intellect we won the survival battle with other creatures. It seems that we are naturally inclined to have and enjoy control over the world or at least over our close surroundings. It is primarily our intellect through which we gain this control. Achieving it we find peace, stability and we are able to let our internal attributes grow.

In this week’s Torah portion we find a rather peculiar sacrifice practice. Besides all the practices of sacrifices to God, which are widely discussed in the book of Leviticus, Moses instructs Aaron to sacrifice a goat to a mysterious Azazel. Azazel is a fallen angel appearing in both Hebrew and Muslim mythology. During the Second Temple period he appears as a fallen angel responsible for introducing humans to forbidden knowledge. His figure appears later in the apocrypha, Talmud and Zohar.The figure and the ancient ritual was  trouble for the normative Jewish monotheism and we can express this problem in one question: what was indeed the purpose of making sacrifices to a demonic being and appeasing it if the only ruler of this world is a jealous God who had no mercy for the Israelites performing sacrifices to any beings or deities besides Him?

The answer to this question I will propose today is as follows: both kinds of sacrifices, to God and to Azazel, were made to bring back the divine world order. This biblical, divine world order has its center and its periphery. The center of this order was Mishkan (and later the Temple,) but above all, the Ark of the Covenant. The further we go from this divine order center the more forces of chaos we encounter and the more we are exposed to random, unpredictable and – by definition – bad events. Wilderness, to which Aaron was commanded to send the goat for Azazel, is a place which is dominated by the forces of chaos. This place should either be avoided, appeased or conquered completely – controlled and ultimately turned into a place of order. Here we deal only with avoidance and some sort of symbolic appeasement, but primarily with avoidance/separation – all the sins of Israel were put on the goat’s head:

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. (Vayikra/Leviticus 16:21-22)

All the sins, iniquities and transgressions belong to the realm of chaos are caused by the forces of chaos and thus it is clear that they should be sent back to the place from which they initially came. By doing this we expel these forces from the realm of divine order, we purify this realm and restore its complete order. This renewed separation of order and chaos was necessary because it was chaos – the lack of proper procedures – that caused the accident in which the sons of Aaron were killed, which is mentioned in our previous Torah portion.

This divine order exists eternally today. It extends to all ontological realms of the world we experience: the natural realm (described by physics, chemistry and biology,) the societal realm (the sphere of human interaction) as well as to the spiritual realm. The spiritual realm can be divided into the psychological realm and the realm of ‘objective spirit,’ which contains all the expressions of human spirit: art, literature, philosophy, religion etc. We don’t have to worry too much about the divine order in the realm of nature: it is given, stable and it follows the laws of nature that we have discovered throughout history and are still discovering. The only thing we may be worried about regarding the divine order in nature is our impact, an impact that can destabilize the natural processes and can lead us to bad consequences. It is not possible for us to change the laws of nature, but nature can “punish” us if our interactions with it lead to a conflict. By nature here I don’t necessarily mean planet earth, i.e. climate. It can be equally applied to a situation in which we destabilize natural, biological processes in our bodies which can make us infertile.

What we have to worry about the most is the divine order in the other two realms: the societal realm and the spiritual realm, because we are those directly responsible for maintaining this order in these spheres. This means that we have to maintain the rule of law, balance and harmony inside those realms. Because they are actually inseparable in practice, to live a good and healthy life we have to keep all the orders of those realms “in consistency” – integrated with each other. Our spiritual order and balance has to be integrated with the order of society, and both of them have to be integrated with the order of nature. It does not mean that we must always succumb to the dictates of nature or society. No. Our spiritual powers and concepts of societal orders and regulations can, and sometimes should, challenge established orders of society and nature – that’s the way progress works. But keeping unwise and long term inconsistency between the orders of any of these spheres, without any goal or real perspective of change, can be devastating for humans and our societies.

It is relevant to mention here Mordechai Kaplan’s concept of salvation. For Kaplan, salvation has both a personal and a social aspect, both of them are of equal significance and cannot fully exist without each other. Salvation, in its personal aspect, represents the faith in the possibility of achieving an integrated personality. To have an integrated personality means that all our natural impulses, appetites and desires which are so often in conflict are harmonized. As Kaplan says, “they must never be permitted to issue in a stalemate, in such mutual inhibition as leaves life empty and meaningless, without zest and savor. Nor must they be permitted to issue in distraction, in a condition in which our personality is so pulled apart by conflicting desires that the man we are in certain moments or certain relations looks with contempt and disgust at the man we are in others.” As long as this is the case, we haven’t achieved personal salvation. Biblical narratives abound in stories in which the characters experience that kind of internal struggle, a struggle that often affects their human environment.

According to Kaplan’s concept, salvation also has its social aspect. Selfish salvation is something impossible to achieve because no human being is psychologically self-sufficient. There can be no personal salvation as long as injustice exists in the social order; there can be no social salvation as long as the greed and lust for dominion suppress people’s desire to be in human society in which values like love, respect and compassion are respected. God has a special place here: “To believe in God means to take for granted that it is man’s destiny to rise above the brute and to eliminate all forms of violence and exploitation from human society. In brief,” as Kaplan continues, “God is the Power in the cosmos that gives human life the direction that enables the human being to reflect the image of God. In this sense it is true that the real salvation is of the world to come, for it hasn’t been attained so far.”

The Israelites, our ancient ancestors, saw the world, like many other ancient peoples, primarily as the battle between good and bad forces in the world. Over time, and this is our Jewish original invention, this concept lost its symmetry and the two powers that rule the world ceased to be equal ontologically – at this moment we became monotheists. But many of our ancient stories can be seen as objectifications of internal, spiritual phenomena. Stories about Azazel or the Ark of the Covenant can be understood as a story of our ancestors’ internal fight for establishing a new world order where justice, love, respect and peace are supreme values. This fight is not over yet; it is our inheritance to continue the fight for these values until we reach the world to come.

Shabbat Shalom

Menachem Mirski

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