Day of the Purge: The Random Goats of Yom Kippur

by Bob Schwartz

No matter how many layers and centuries of rabbinic interpretation and tradition overlay Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holy days, we are educated by going back to basics and to the foundations. In the case of Yom Kippur, that means back to the Torah.

“And it shall be a perpetual statute for you: in the seventh month on the tenth of the month you shall afflict yourselves and no task shall you do, the native and the sojourner who sojourns in your midst. For on this day it will be atoned for you, to cleanse you of all your offenses, before the LORD you shall be cleansed. It is a sabbath of sabbaths for you, and you shall afflict yourselves, an everlasting statute. And the priest shall atone, who will be anointed and who will be installed to serve as priest in his father’s stead, and he shall put on the linen garments, the sacral garments. And he shall atone for the holy sanctuary and for the Tent of Meeting, and he shall atone for the altar, and for the priests and for all the assembled people he shall atone. And this shall be an everlasting statute for you to atone for the Israelites for all their offenses once in the year.” (Leviticus 16:29-33, Robert Alter translation)

We refer to Yom Kippur (short for the Hebrew yom hakippurim) as the Day of Atonement. But some offer the English translation “the Day of Purgation.” It is the day, according to Leviticus, on which the high priest was allowed to enter the holy of holies of the Tent of Meeting to purge it of the transgressions that had accumulated over the course of year—a dirty accretion that can be thought of as a sort of a dense smog.

Leviticus prescribes a detailed purgative procedure for Aaron to perform. It involves, among other things, a bull, a ram and two goats. Only one of the goats will be sacrificed. But which one?

And from the community of Israelites he shall take two he-goats for an offense offering and one ram for a burnt offering. And Aaron shall bring forward the offense-offering bull which is his and atone for himself and for his household. And he shall take the two goats and set them before the LORD at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. And he shall put lots on the two goats, one for the LORD and one for Azazel. And Aaron shall bring forward the goat for which the lot for the LORD comes up, and he shall make it an offense offering. And the goat for which the lot for Azazel comes up shall be set live before the LORD to atone upon it, to send it off to Azazel in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:6-10)

Who is Azazel? Why is he being sent a wandering goat in the wilderness? And why is the goat being chosen at random by lottery?

Robert Alter:

one [goat] for the LORD and one for Azazel: As countless seals and other ancient inscriptions unearthed by archeologists attest, the use of a proper name or title, prefixed by the letter lamed (“for”) as a lamed of possession, was a standard form for indicating that the object in question belonged to So-and-so (as in lamelekh, “the king’s”). These words, then (in the Hebrew, each is a single word, leYHWH and la‘azaz’el), are the actual texts written on the two lots. Much ink since Late Antiquity has been spilled over the identity of Azazel, but the most plausible understanding—it is a very old one—is that it is the name of a goatish demon or deity associated with the remote wilderness. The name appears to reflect ‘ez, goat.

for which the lot for the LORD comes up: This translation renders the Hebrew verb literally. The use of that verb may be dictated by the fact that the lots were in all likelihood pulled up out of a box or urn.

to send it off to Azazel in the wilderness: Approximate analogues to the so-called scapegoat ritual, using different animals, appear in several different Mesopotamian texts. The origins of the practice are surely in an archaic idea—that the polluting substance generated by the transgressions of the people is physically carried away by the goat. Azazel is not represented as a competing deity (or demon) rivaling YHWH, but the ritual depends upon a polarity between YHWH/the pale of human civilization and Azazel/the remote wilderness, the realm of disorder and raw formlessness. An unapologetic reading might make out the trace of a mythological plot, even if it is no more than vestigial in this monotheistic context. It is as though the goat piled with impurities were being sent back to the primordial realm of “welter and waste” before the delineated world came into being, but that realm here is given an animal-or-demon tag. The early rabbis, extending the momentum of the ritual, imagined the goat as being pushed off a high cliff, but in our text it is merely sent out, or set free, in the wild wilderness that is the realm of Azazel.

Jewish Study Bible:

The use of the two goats is similar to that of the two birds in Leviticus 14.4–7, 49–53. The lottery determines at random how each goat is to be used.

Azazel: The Rabbis cleverly divided this name into two words “ʿez ʾazel,” “the goat that goes away,” from which the traditional “scapegoat” is derived. It literally means “fierce god” and as intimated by the medieval exegete Abraham Ibn Ezra is evidently the name of a demon or deity believed to inhabit the wilderness. Thus the sins of the people are symbolically cast into the realm beyond civilization, to become the property of a being who is the antithesis of the God of Israel. Though Azazel accepts the goat bearing Israel’s sins as a sacrifice to him, this is no disloyalty to God since He Himself commands it, as Naḥmanides (Ramban) says: It is as though a king ordered “Give a portion [of this feast] to my servant so-and-so.”

Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism by Howard Schwartz:

The custom of sending a scapegoat out into the desert as an offering to Azazel is clearly a remnant of a pagan ritual.

In Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 51, God identifies the scapegoat as an atonement for Himself: “This he-goat shall be an atonement for Me, because I have diminished the size of the moon.” See “The Quarrel of the Sun and the Moon,” p. 112, which concludes with God diminishing the moon. We should not overlook the strangeness of God feeling the need to atone. This is reminiscent of Jung’s portrayal of God in Answer to Job. This is one more example of the kind of personification of God so commonly found in rabbinic sources, where God also studies Torah, suffers, mourns, puts on tallit and tefillin and prays.

Who was Azazel, to whom the scapegoat was sent? This appears to be a remnant of a pagan myth in which Azazel was some kind of desert god. Thus the scapegoat represents a sacrifice to the forces of evil. In modern Israel, the phrase “Lekh le Azazel” means “Go to hell!”

A description of the sacrifice of the scapegoat is found in B. Yoma 67a: “On Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) a goat was thrown off a high cliff in the desert, to atone for the sins of the Jews. A red ribbon was hung up in the Temple on that day. When the goat was thrown off the cliff, the ribbon turned white.” This description links the Temple and the sacrifice of the scapegoat, viewing it as a kind of remote Temple offering. The transformation of the ribbon from red to white confirms this.

What to make of all this, in the year 5779/2018? There is no Temple, no Tent of Meeting, no holy of holies. For most of us, there are no goats being chosen by lottery and sent to Azazel, and no Azazel.

Today we live and worship in the interpretation and symbolizing of these Torah stories and ancient roots. But at Yom Kippur, one thing to pay attention to in this is the role of randomness on this solemn occasion. It is not the only instance where randomness plays a part in the Torah.

In the Torah, of course, the seemingly random is no such thing. The lot pulled out of the box is supposedly pre-arranged by God (to quote from Leonard Cohen, as I did in my previous post, “everybody knows the dice are loaded.”)

Yom Kippur is arranged as a soul-searching transaction. Consider what you do, because when you do this that happens. Adding the element of randomness doesn’t change that; it just adds another dimension of reality. Things happen by cause and effect. Things also happen at random. The two are inextricably integrated. You can’t pick the “wrong” goat to send to Azazel, not because God fixed the lottery, but because it is always up to you, wandering like that goat in the wilderness. Just much more aware and thoughtful.

 

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