Parsha Aharei Mot



This Parsha describes the complex and ornate procedure that took place on Yom Kipur to atone for the Jewish people. There were two goats. One was sacrificed in the Tabernacle or after it was built, in the Temple. The other was sent out into the wilderness to wander or meet its end. That goat was what the Christian Bible called the Scapegoat. And over time, that word was used for someone or something that is blamed unfairly for the sins of others.

In the Tora, this second goat is called the goat sent to Azazel. And Azazel has come to be used as an equivalent for hell. Some commentators see Azazel as coming from the Hebrew Az or Ayz meaning a goat. And El which means to go out to somewhere. Others suggest that as El is also another name for God, it is God’s goat. And there is also the view that this was some pagan god and a relic of paganism.

I suggest the two goats represent two types of world view that help us understand the significance of atonement. The first goat is a sacrifice to God. God requires certain standards from us. Which we inevitably fail to live up to. We have failed God. God’s goat then is part of the Temple rituals that took place every day of the year in the ancient world. With all its ceremonials leading up to its sacrifice and the rituals that followed it. This symbolized the role of religion and God in our lives. We relate and intercede because of the prayers and rituals that are part of our tradition. This is something that is laid out in black and white in our system, our Torah and our constitution.

The other area of life is the unknown. The fates that send storms, earthquakes and volcanoes to disrupt human life, that some of us escape and others get caught up in, not because of anything we have done so much as the accident of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We have little control over this area. But it is almost as important as the other.

The first goat, we know exactly what will happen to him and how. The second is sent off to its fate. We don’t see the end though it is described in later texts. We atone on Yom Kipur for the known and the unknown, for the knowable and that which cannot be known.