In this week’s Torah reading, we learn all about the annual Day of Atonement which the God of Israel commanded the Jewish people to observe “as a perpetual ordinance.” The strangest element of the service was the ritual of the two goats – one offered as a sacrifice, the other sent away into the desert “to Azazel.” They were brought before the High Priest, to all intents and purposes indistinguishable from one another; they were chosen to be as similar as possible to one another in size and appearance. Lots were drawn, one bearing the words “To the Lord,” the other, “To Azazel.” The one on which the lot “To the Lord” fell was offered as a sacrifice. Over the other the high priest confessed the sins of the nation, and it was then taken away into the desert hills outside Jerusalem where it plunged to its death.
Sin and guilt offerings were common in ancient Israel, but this particular ceremony was unique. When those offerings were made, confession was made over the animal to be offered as a sacrifice. On the Day of Atonement, however, confession was made over the goat not offered as a sacrifice. Why? And who or what in the world was Azazel?
The word Azazel appears nowhere else in Scripture, and three major theories emerged as to its meaning. According to the Sages and Rashi it means “a steep, rocky or hard place,” in other words a description of its destination. According to Ibn Ezra and Nachmanides, Azazel was the name of a spirit or demon, one of the fallen angels referred to in Genesis 6:2. The third interpretation is that the word simply means “the goat [ez] that was sent away [azal].” Hence the English word “scapegoat” coined by William Tyndale in his 1530 English translation of the Bible.
But the questions remain. Why was this ritual different from all other sin or guilt offerings? Why two goats rather than one?
The simplest answer is found within the commandment: “On this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins” (Leviticus 16:30). The routine offerings were for atonement. But on Yom Kippur there was something more: not only atonement but also purification, cleansing of the soul. Let me say it this way: you make ‘atonement’ for an offensive act. But purification is a work within the soul. It is possible to ‘atone’ for something we’ve done without necessarily receiving a soul cleansing if heart repentance does not accompany the act of atonement.
After his adultery with Batsheva, King David cried out in Psalm 51:4, “Wash me thoroughly of my iniquity and cleanse me of my sin” (Psalm 51: 4). And further on, “Create in me a clean heart, O God…” Repentance opens the door to forgiveness but the damage done to our soul when we sin, needs also to be ‘healed’ in a manner of speaking. When the scapegoat was sent away, it symbolically carried all the stains and damage done to the souls of the people when they rebelled against the Lord God; stains that were not physical but mental and emotional. It is sometimes difficult to get rid of the sense of guilt and/or defilement after we have committed a transgression, even when we know we’ve been forgiven.
The sacrificed goat represented atonement. The goat sent away symbolized the inner cleansing of the moral stain. This brings to mind the the verse that says God casts our sins away from us as far as the east is from the west and He remembers them no more. (see Psalm 103)
Ironically, the scapegoat of Acharei Mot is the precise opposite of what we generally think ‘scapegoat’ means. Our modern interpretation of “Scapegoating,” means blaming someone else for our troubles. The scapegoat of Yom Kippur existed so that we would do just the opposite: We do not blame others for our fate. We accept responsibility. In the prayer of Yom Kippur, we declare, “because of our sins.”
Those who blame others, defining themselves as victims, are destined to remain victims. Those who accept responsibility mature and grow into the godly men and women God desires to see among His people.
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