Taste of Torah
A Bima-Ready D’var Torah Every Week
26 Nisan 5776
Parashat Acharei Mot
The Goat of Azazel
Torah Portion: Leviticus 16:1-18:30
Haftarah Portion: Ezekiel 22:1-22:19
The ISJL Taste of Torah periodically features contributions from members of the ISJL Staff. This week's drash comes from Shira Moskowitz, a First Year Fellow in our Education Department, and is based on a sermon written by former ISJL Rabbi Debra Kassoff.
When William Tyndale coined the term "scapegoat," he probably did not realize he would soon become one himself. Working as a scholar and a member of the early Protestant movement in England, he sought to translate the Bible into the vernacular. When he came to the description of the goat of Azazel (in this week's Torah portion), he ultimately settled on the English translation of "scapegoat" to describe the animal burdened with the community's sins before being sent off into the wilderness. His translation would form the basis for the King James Bible, assuring "scapegoat" a place in the English language for centuries. But despite his legacy, Tyndale's life ended in tragedy: as a result of his translations, he became a scapegoat and faced imprisonment and ultimately execution for his works. We know what a scapegoat is today, but what was its purpose according to the original Hebrew text?
In this week's Torah portion, Aaron is commanded to take two goats "one marked for the Lord and the other marked for Azazel" (Leviticus 16:8).
It is an odd passage-no one knows exactly what or who Azazel is. But the text continues, explaining that "Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the . . . goat [marked for Azazel] 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" (Leviticus 16:21). It is not enough for the Israelites to simply offer the sin sacrifice to God, they must cast away their sins on yet another sacrifice.
There are two explanations for the added step of the scapegoat.
The first is that these two goats "represent our best and our worst, that which we proudly offer up to God, and that which we, ashamedly, wish to expiate from our midst, from our very being."[i] We strive to separate our sins, from the gifts we bestow upon God.
The second explanation, is that, as humans, we need a physical display to help us let go. Maimonides explains in The Guide for the Perplexed, "There is no doubt that sins cannot be carried like a burden, and taken off the shoulder of one being to be laid on that of another being. But these ceremonies are of a symbolic character, and serve to impress people with a certain idea, and to induce them to repent - as if to say, we have freed ourselves of our previous deeds, have cast them behind our backs, and removed them from us as far as possible."[ii]
As Rabbi Howard Jaffe writes "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."[iii]
Although, we no longer sacrifice goats, Judaism still provides tangible outlets for releasing us from the shackles of our mistakes. Instead of goats, today we use bread crumbs.
On the second day of Rosh HaShanah, the beginning of the new year, many observe tashlikh, tossing our "sins" (represented by bread crumbs) into the water.
Last week, many of us engaged in another bread-disposing ritual. Prior to Passover, we burn our breadcrumbs, or our chametz, with a candle. While tradition and the memory of our Exodus from Egypt seem like as good a reason as any for an intense spring cleaning, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky offers a different perspective.
"Chametz not only 'make[s] its home in the corners of the pantry,' but also 'lurks menacingly in the recesses of the soul.'" This chametz, Olitzky continues, "symbolizes a puffiness of self, an inflated personality, an egocentricity that threatens to eclipse the essential personality of the individual. We must clean our spiritual house as well as our physical dwelling-places. It is time to maketeshuvah, to let the air out, to return to what is substantive and solid in our relationships with one another and with God."[iv]
Passover, arriving almost halfway through the year, offers us an opportunity to check in, to make an accounting of where we missed the mark. This pre-Passover cleaning gives us a chance to acknowledge our mistakes and then let them go, both physically and metaphorically, so that we can do better in the second half of the year.
In 2014, when Mathew McConaughey accepted the Oscar for best actor, he told a story about who his hero has been since he was 15 years old. "It's me in 10 years." He said and continued "So I turned 25. Ten years later, that same person comes to me and says, 'So, are you a hero?' And I was like, 'not even close. No, no, no.' She said, 'Why?' I said, 'Because my hero's me at 35.' So you see every day, every week, every month and every year of my life, my hero's always 10 years away. I'm never gonna be my hero. I'm not gonna attain that. I know I'm not, and that's just fine with me because that keeps me with somebody to keep on chasing."[v]
Granted, the speech might seem a bit self-righteous, but there's another way to look at it. Each year, we will mess up; we will make new mistakes and repeat old ones. We will be burdened with shame and guilt for our actions. Often, we cannot take back our mistakes; however, Judaism provides outlets for us to move forward and grow. Our religion encourages us to keep chasing a better version of ourselves.
Although Passover has come and gone, it's not too late to have that semi-annual check-in. It's a chance to see where you have missed the mark and then find ways, whether tangible or spiritual, to free yourself of the burden of your misgivings. May each of us find ways to release our scapegoat out into the wilderness and clean out our "chametz," so that we can continue to move forward.
[i] Rabbi Debra Kassoff, Taste of Torah Parashat Acharei Mot 5765.
[ii] The Guide for the Perplexed, III: 46.
[iii] Rabbi Howard Jaffe, http://www.reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/acharei-mot/stretching-make-sense-and-not-fully-succeeding
[iv] Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, Preparing Your Heart for Passover.
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