D'var Torah

Vayikra | Acharei

Azazel (Leviticus 16)

Questions by Joel Cohen
It is understandable in a regime of animal sacrifice, that sacrifices would be especially required on Yom Kippur in an effort to placate God. And in a regime that requires contrition, requiring the House of Israel to suffer some form of “pain” would likewise seem appropriate – although when the Torah says that one should “afflict” oneself, and that turns out to mean refraining from food and drink, washing and sexual activity, we are somewhat relieved. (Let’s hope that’s all that God intended).
But sending an ignorant goat into the desert to somehow carry away our sins? It is unsurprising that the nowadays term “scapegoat,” which the poor goat sent off to the desert personifies in ritual history – Azazel – gains sympathy. The paradigm scapegoat (like the contemporary “scapegoat”), has no sin, but yet he takes on the weight of a person’s or the Nation’s sins. And that somehow helps the people and the Nation to baptize themselves from their sins no matter how grievous? An ignorant goat sent to the desert without a roadmap, presumably to die, becomes a lucky charm? It would almost make more sense to send the kohen gadol, since maybe he at least bears some fault. My question doesn’t stem from a concern about animal rights, but rather because this ritual seems to have such a superficial meaning.

Rabbi Adam Mintz

Joel—you are correct to identify the procedure of sending the goat to his death as a symbolic act. Yet, you seem to downplay the role of symbolism which has been at the heart of the entire Book of Vayikra. At the beginning of the Book of Vayikra, there is a dispute between the Rambam and the Ramban about the nature of korbanot. While the Rambam saw korbanot as a reaction to the practices of the pagans of the time, the Ramban understood them as a symbolic act of substitution. We deserve to be sacrificed for our sins—yet in our place we substitute the animal sacrifice.
The scapegoat is merely the most striking symbol in the Book of Vayikra as it represents not only the sins of an individual but the sins of the entire nation. If I were to try to paraphrase the rationale of the Torah, I would say, “how lucky is this goat who is able to achieve atonement for the entire Jewish nation!”
You are correct that the Torah is not very sensitive to animal rights in the Book of Vayikra. However, everything must be seen in context and in the ancient world, sacrifices were not considered cruel or even a punishment for the animal.
Finally, a word about the goat that was sent to Azazel. The ability of a goat to atone for the sins of the Jews seems not only symbolic but also much too easy. What prevented the Jews from sinning all year long and relying on the sa’ir la-azazel. The Talmud addresses this question and explains that the goat only atones for those people who have first performed the necessary steps of the Teshuvah process. The goat is merely the symbolic conclusion of the process in which the Jews saw their sins cast over the mountain. In Judaism, symbolism is important but it is not a replacement for the real thing.

Eli Popack

In other times and societies, many a Hebrew-schooler’s questions were dismissed with “the laws of the Torah are above our understanding. This is Judaism, that’s the way it is.” For better or for worse, that doesn’t sell awfully well anymore.

Interestingly enough, in Nachmanides’ commentary to Leviticus 16:8, I found a great spin on a quote from the Talmud that seemed to conveniently categorize the goat of Azazel as a chok – a G-dly ordinance that is above human logic – as well.

The Talmud in Yoma 67b states: “”And my statutes shall ye keep” – there are things that Satan laughs at, as abstaining from pork, from wearing shatnez, the taking off of the shoe of the husband’s brother at the levirate marriage, purification of a leper, and the dispatching of the Azazel goat. Lest it be said, they are nonsense, it is therefore written “I am the Lord your God.” I have commanded it; you have no right to question.”

Yet, in a most unconventional understanding of Jewish practice, the medieval Jewish philosophers Avraham Ibn Ezra and Moshe ben Nachman explain that the Goat of Azazel was actually a bribe. Not the “appeasing the gods” type of bribe, but a bribe nonetheless.

In Chassidic thought it is explained, that the forces charged by G-d to challenge the Jew by concealing G-d’s presence in the world, receive their nourishment when one succumbs to sin, and especially when he derives pleasure from the forbidden activity. When one repents and wants to steal back the energy that the “forces of evil” nursed from his act, they don’t part with it so easily, and therefore prosecute him before the Heavenly Court. To keep them out of the way, G-d instructs the Jewish people to send off a goat to “the prosecutor” on the day of Yom Kippur, to ensure that when he is called to testify he will only speak well of the nation. These forces of prosecution, formerly those who seduced the human to sin to begin with, will then see no sin in the Jewish people and instead declare before G-d, “There is a nation on earth that is as pure of sin as the angels themselves.”

Why then does the Talmud say that this practice defies logic? Because Jews don’t believe in intermediaries, let alone offer sacrifices to them. So the Azazel goat is not offered as a sacrifice, merely “sent off” to the “other side”.


Enter your email address for
Rabbi Mintz's newsletter