Thoughts on parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. 

There are quite a few notions or religious practices described in the Hebrew Bible of which our understanding is limited. In many cases, the bridges between us and these ancient rituals are to be found in the rabbinic literature, which helps us understand these ideas and practices. Nevertheless, there are issues that were unclear to the rabbis, even though ancient times were much closer to them than to us. Our parasha for this week brings one of those obscure rituals; it talks about one puzzling feature of the ancient Yom Kippur ritual: the sending of the “scapegoat” to Azazel. 

Aaron shall take the two he-goats and let them stand before יהוה at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for יהוה and the other marked for Azazel. Aaron shall bring forward the goat designated by lot for יהוה, which he is to offer as a sin offering; while the goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be left standing alive before יהוה, to make expiation with it and to send it off to the wilderness for Azazel. […] 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 16:6-10;22) 

Who was Azazel? We don’t really know but there are at least several interpretations of what this term refers to. Some biblical commentators rendered the word as a name of a mountain close to Mount Sinai (Rabbi Saadia Gaon, Ibn Ezra). Others were trying to break down the meaning of the word linguistically which led them to the conclusion that Azazel was actually a combination of two words: Az azal (עז אזל), which simply means “a goat that ran out”. The old Greek translation takes azazel as a common noun meaning “dismissal.” However, the linguistic approach here explains only the meaning of the name, not the notion itself or anything deeper that people might have seen as meaning of their experience with the ritual. 

Due to the fact that according to the ancient mindset it was typical to ascribe a spiritual power, good or bad, to the places (one of the names of our God is makom – The Place) Azazel may have been a demonic being, residing in the wilderness, whose abode was regarded as a focus of impurity. Apocryphal Jewish literature, composed in the last few centuries B.C.E., tells the story of angels who were lured by beautiful women into lust and, ultimately, into rebellion against God. In these writings, Azazel is one of the two leaders of the rebellion. Later, post-talmudic documents tell a similar story about two rebel angels, Uzza and Azzael – both are variations of the name Azazel. These mythological stories, which must have been widely known at the time, seem to confirm the demonic character of the old biblical Azazel.

The idea that Azazel was considered a leader of rebellion against God identifies him with another being/demonic force, known as Satan. However, in the eyes of our Sages, who avoided the mythological notions of rebel angels seen as separate demonic or anti-divine beings, Satan was not an enemy of God, like the Christian tradition portrays him. In the Talmud Satan is still a hostile power, who must be overcome or appeased, but his main function is to be the God’s prosecutor, and therefore – to some extent – Satan is a servant of God like we are. 

Let’s assume that this interpretation is correct and close to what ancient Israelites understood by this term. What light could this shed on the meaning of this ritual? Making a sacrifice to Azazel in this context would mean appeasing the divine prosecutor. The purpose of this sacrifice might be to mitigate God’s judgment. Additionally, sparing the life of the goat sent to Azazel is a symbolic act of mercy towards this living being. The animal sent to Azazel was not punished for our sins the way the animal sacrificed for God was – it was not slaughtered and could always have survived the expulsion to the wilderness. Therefore the function of substitution, which was an important function of all the sin and guilt offerings, expressed in the idea that “what is being done to this animal is something that should actually be done to the sinner” had completely different outcomes in this ritual.   

What is a lesson that we can possibly draw from this ritual? What might be the intention or message behind it? One of the possibilities is a commandment of showing mercy to living beings, like people, who are entangled in bad circumstances, who are on the ‘bad side’, on ‘the dark side of the force’, especially to those who – like that goat – not aware of what they are doing. There may be some other, practical justifications of that kind of commandment, like that we should show mercy to them because that’s the only language that would actually work; punishing those who are on ‘on the bad side’ and not completely aware of it, can only cause resentment, anger and radicalization, which will definitely not improve anything. Perhaps it may be better to ignore it and simply watch as evil destroys itself from within. This, however, raises an ethical issue because evil, by its essence, touches innocent people too, so the position of a bystander – as we know also from a variety of historical evidence – is in many circumstances ethically problematic. The whole thought process stemming from these considerations may lead us to the conclusion that we shall always rather act than not act, and we should definitely act and bring help whenever we see bad things happening to other people; especially when it is clear to us that our ethical perception of the events we observe is right. 

Shabbat shalom!

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