Weekly Torah Commentary – Acharei Mot April 29, 2016

Leviticus 16-18

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.

scapegoat

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.

Shabbat Shalom!

Please leave a comment below and pass this on to someone who may be inspired and uplifted by it.

 

 

 

Weekly Torah Commentary — Acharei Mot April 11, 2014

Shabbat HaGadol

The Shabbat immediately prior to Passover is called Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Shabbat. How it came to be called that is a topic of discussion. One opinion is that it is because of the Haftorah read this week which refers to a day in the future which will be “great” – the day of the re-establishment of God’s Kingdom on this earth, as described in Malachi 3.

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord. (Malachi 3:23)

The prophet speaks of the day of redemption in the future. Passover, which represents the day of redemption of antiquity, serves as the model for the future redemption of the children of Israel.

This Shabbat in Egypt was different from all other previous Shabbatot. This time, man joined God in His holy day. Ironically, the mode of observance was not “resting” as we think of it in the context of today’s Shabbat. Historically, the Shabbat before Pesach was the day when the children of Israel were commanded to take to themselves a lamb, a symbolic action that stood in opposition to the lamb-worshiping Egyptians.

The Sages note that by taking the lamb the Jews observed Shabbat in Egypt as never before. This was their first Shabbat as a people, a moment of passage in the national sense: They had reached the age of majority, became adult (“gedolim”), with responsibilities. This was Shabbat “HaGadol”. The most basic teaching of Shabbat is the acknowledgement that God created the world in six days. By taking the lamb the Jews rejected idolatry and accepted God. This was not merely an action which took place on the tenth of Nissan. This was a watershed of Jewish history. Now the Jews joined God in a Shabbat.

The Talmud teaches that one who desecrates Shabbat is guilty of idolatry, for he has rejected the works of God. Now we see that those who rejected idolatry were viewed as “Shabbat observers.” Moreover, in taking the lamb, they kept their only Shabbat commandment. This “perfect track record” made it a truly great Shabbat.13

Our sages teach us that if all of Israel fully observe just two Shabbatot the Messiah would appear.

Interestingly, according to the mainstream Jewish approach the world was created in Nissan, which means that the Shabbat which takes place around the 10th of the month was the second Shabbat in the history of the world. Had those two Shabbatot been kept properly the world would have been redeemed back then.

In particular, the two Shabbatot which must be observed are Shabbat Hagadol and Shabbt Shuva. Each of these Shabbatot have a special power to them: One falls between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, it is a Shabbat which teaches man how to return to God. The other Shabbat is the first Shabbat observed in Egypt, the one we are about to celebrate. It is a Shabbat which contains within it the secret of redemption.

If man could master these two Shabbatot, the Messiah would quickly arrive. Would that it would be this year.

Torah reading this week is Acharie Mot found in Leviticus 16-18

Acharei Mot includes the Yom Kippur service where the High Priest cast lots to designate two goats — one to be sacrificed, the other to be driven to a place called Azazel after the High Priest confessed the sins of the people upon its head.

The goat sent to Azazel symbolically carried away the sins of the Jewish people. This, I surmise, is the source of the concept of using a scapegoat. One thing you can truly give credit to the Jewish people — when we use a scapegoat, at least we use a real goat!

Yom Kippur atones for transgressions between man and the Almighty. However, Yom Kippur only atones for transgressions between man and man if a person first attains the forgiveness of those whom he has offended or harmed.

While our main reason not to hurt others should be out of compassion and caring, we learn from here that we should be careful not to hurt others out of our own self interests — the embarrassment of having to ask others for forgiveness and the possibility that they won’t or can’t forgive you.

In Tune with Torah this week = as we prepare to celebrate the Festival of our Redemption, past and future, let us examine our relationships and make sure that we have no ‘unfinished business’ in that area. If we need to ask forgiveness for some offense, let’s do it from the heart. If we need to forgive someone else, likewise let’s forgive freely as God forgives us.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Pesach Sameach!!! (A blessed Passover)