In today’s parsha we read:
וְנָתַן אַהֲרֹן עַל־שְׁנֵי הַשְּׂעִירִם גֹּרָלוֹת גּוֹרָל אֶחָד לַה' וְגוֹרָ֥ל אֶחָד לַעֲזָאזֵל
And Aaron shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for HaSem and the other marked for Azazel. (Lev 16:8)
For Azazel? Who, or what, is Azazel? For many years, I’ve come to Yom Kippur services and wondered this. Sometimes I’ve tried to read into the text and commentary provided in the Machzor and Chumash to see if an answer lies there, but, even if they fit at the time, the ideas I’ve come across simply haven’t stuck with me. I decided that, this year, I would research more deeply so I could share with you all The Answer.
After hours of pouring over everything I could find from Mishnah to modern sources, I am pleased to share with you that… it’s complicated.
I don’t have The Answer, but I was able to find possible answers. Now, in sharing some of them with you, I hope to help you find meaning in this peculiar passage, perhaps even someday adding answers of your own.
One possibility is that Azazel is a place. Rashi teaches “The word is taken to be a compound of עזז "to be strong" and אל "mighty". It was a precipitous and flinty rock.” (so says Rashi) Reading further, Rashi adds that the land must have been a mountain for it says it is a land cut off (גְּזֵרָ֑ה). Later commentators add that this means it was a cliff.
A detailed description of leading the scapegoat away includes how it was pushed off and tumbled down said cliff, being completely mangled by the time it was even halfway down. Ibn Ezra notes that, unlike the goat designated for God that served as sin offering, this one is not ritually slaughtered and therefore cannot be considered an offering.
Here is where a second possibility is hinted at. Ibn Ezra continues:
If you are able to understand the secret that follows Azazel then you will know its secret and the secret of its name, for it has comrades in Scripture. I will reveal a bit of its secret to you in a hint. When you are thirty-three, you will understand it.
Is it time to send the kids off or check everyone’s ID?
Not so fast, later sages tell us. They explain:
What [Ibn Ezra] meant was that when we count the next thirty three verses in the Torah … we get to Leviticus 17:7,
And just what does that verse say? It reads:
and that they may offer their sacrifices no more to the goat-demons after whom they stray
The sages clarify:
Whereas the first male goat is offered to the Lord as a burnt offering, the second one is symbolically tendered to the Satanic forces, the complete destruction of that animal pointing at the uselessness of idolatry. The two words לעז אזל, [mean] “it went to waste, to destruction”.
By taking the goat marked for this creature called Azazel and ruining it, we reject any allegiance to the forces that drive it. In earlier times, our ancestors did worship other gods, namely the angels, bringing offerings to them as well as to God. But this act of destroying an otherwise fitting offering rejects that path.
And how do we know it would have been a worthy offering? Several commentators assert that the two goats must be as similar as possible. In addition, the wording of how the lots must be cast upon the goats indicates that they must be designated simultaneously, one with Aaron’s right hand and one with his left. This all helps to ensure the choice of which goat stays and which goes is left entirely to chance or, perhaps, God.
I read more, and learned that others hold that in the court of the angels, Azazel is another name for Sammael or Satan. Sammael serves as prosecutor, arguing our faults against us before God. It comes among the people to learn all of their misdeeds so it may argue its case.
However, as it says in Leviticus 16:22, “the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region.” Ramban, quoting Rabbi Eliezer, proclaims,
When Sammael saw that it could find no sin on the Day of Atonement amongst [the children of Israel], it said to the Holy One: ‘Master of all worlds! You have one people on earth who are comparable to the ministering angels in the heavens. … Just as the ministering angels are free from all sin, so are the Israelites free from all sin on the Day of Atonement.’ And the Holy One, baruch HaShem, hears the testimony concerning Israel from their prosecutor.
So, do we get off scot free because a poor goat got thrown off a cliff? Of course not, says Mishneh Torah. It clarifies:
The goat sent to Azazel atones for all the transgressions in the Torah, the severe and the lighter [sins] …
This applies only if one repents. If one does not repent, the goat only atones for the light [sins].
We don’t get a free ride. We are still responsible for doing the work of teshuvah, combined with tefillah and tzedakah.
This leads me to my own metaphorical understanding of Azazel building upon several of these sources. Like the scapegoat, if we laden ourselves with misdeeds and transgressions, one heaped upon another with no attempt to change course or atone for the wrongs done, we will find ourselves in a harsh, barren, and above all lonely wilderness of our own making.
Luckily, just like the scapegoat, this path is not foreordained. Were we not to be burdened with our sins, we would be as worthy of the divine presence and remaining at the very heart of a supportive community as the twin goat that was not sent away.
That’s not to say that it’s easy to repent and thus be unburdened of the heavy weight. As Rabbeinu Bahya points out, “the word לעזאזל means “hard,” a word related to the word עִזוּז, obstinacy.” On this day of all days, we’re asked to swallow our pride, be honest with ourselves and others about who we are as expressed through our actions. About what we have done that we regret. And then, to decide how we want to act in the future.
Will we follow the obstinate goat for Azazel off that cliff? Or will we work to change course and return? For, as some of you may know, “teshuvah” is translated as “returning”.
Beautifully in our tradition, it is not a path we walk alone. We do not point accusing fingers at those around us, nor demand that individuals publicly admit their faults before the congregation. Rather, we stand shoulder to shoulder and say ashamnu - WE have trespassed, bagadnu - WE have betrayed, and so on. And in this collectivization of guilt, perhaps we manage, in part, to lighten the load of misdeeds from each other and permit ourselves to find that path of teshuvah to return from harsh, jagged lands to the welcoming arms of our community.
Shanah tovah, and g’mar chatima tovah.