Achrei Mot – Kedoshim: Sympathy for the Devil

Man, in his effort to perfect himself and the world, must confront evil.  To succeed in this battle, he must, explains the Zohar (Bo 34b), “give Satan his due.”  What is the meaning of this strange piece of advice that the Zohar later extols as a “deep tenet of faith”?

The answer, I suggest, can be found in the enigmatic scapegoat ritual prescribed for Yom Kippur in this week’s parsha:

And he shall take the two goats, and set them before the Lord at the door of the tent of meeting. And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats: one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for Azazel. And Aaron shall present the goat upon which the lot fell for the Lord, and offer him for a sin-offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell for Azazel, shall be set alive before the Lord, to make atonement over him, to send him away for Azazel into the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:7-10).

The Talmud (Yoma 67b) teaches that Azazel was so named because the ritual performed there atones for the affair of the fallen angels Uza and Azael.  Given that the text speaks of atonement for the people, “the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities” (16:22), clearly the Talmud’s intent is that the sin of these angels persists in the people of Israel.  What is this sin that requires one this most unusual of sacrificial rites?

The Zohar (Balak 207b) explains that, “at the time when God expressed His intention of creating man He called together various companies of heavenly angels” and explained his desire to create man.  The angels demurred, but God, as we know, created man anyway.  Following man’s sin and expulsion from the Garden, “Uza and Azael approached God and said: ‘We have a claim against You, for the man whom You have made has sinned against You.’ He said to them: ‘Had you been with them you would have been worse.’  And God cast them down from their holy position in heaven.”

The sin of Uza and Azael, it can be said, was in questioning the wisdom of creating a man with the capacity for sin, of creating a world with the potential for evil.  Their questioning is really a reflection of man’s questioning.  Indeed, the Talmud (Eruvin 13b) relates that the schools of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai argued over this very same question.  After two and a half years(!) they agreed that, in effect, the angels were right; “but now that he had been created,” they concluded, “he should scrutinize his deeds [to insure they lead to only good].”

Now, while Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai reached the appropriate understanding, the angels still needed to be taught the lesson.  In response to their lack of understanding, and the disdain that it engendered, the angels were thrown to earth to learn for themselves; but not, explains the Zohar (Ber. 37a), before acquiring the same drive – yetzer hara – that allows man to choose freely.  God did this so that they realize the challenge of freewill, so that they realize that, “with the creation of potential for good, which is required for man to be able to reach his spiritual potential, potential for evil indirectly, but nevertheless, inexorably, came into existence as a consequence” (David Birnbaum, “God and Evil”, p.94).

This, then, is the paradox of creation – for there to be value to virtue, vice must be an option.  This notion is of such critical importance that it is given central prominence on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, in arguably the most dramatic ritual of the day.  In the midst of the various rituals, two identical goats are selected as offerings, one “to God” and the other “to Azazel”.  These twin offerings give expression to the paradox of creation, that potential for good is “inexorably” linked with potential for evil.  For while the sacrifice to God expresses acknowledgement of the Creator and His goodness, the goat to Azazel, explains Nachmanides (Leviticus 16:8), “pays” homage, as it were, to the potential for evil that serves God’s creation.

The epilogue to the fallen angel’s story tells of a complete failure to withstand temptation:

The angels who fell from their place in heaven saw the daughters of the generations of Cain walking about naked, with their eyes painted like harlots, and they went astray after them, and took wives from amongst them, as it is written (Gen. 6:2), “And the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were beautiful; and they took them wives of whomever they chose.” (Pirke DeRebbi Eliezer, ch. 22)

The angels, who could not fathom a world with the potential for evil, succumbed to the very evil that they had contemned.  Similarly man, who fails to appreciate the role of evil in creation, will succumb to it.  One must recognize evil.  One must “give Satan his due” by recognizing his role in creation as the very vehicle through which man strives to achieve perfection by its elimination.

The metaphor provided by the Zohar is instructive.  In it, Satan is likened to a prostitute hired by the King to test his son the prince.  If the son only recognize the tempter for what she is – a servant of the King – he could overcome the test with the greatest finesse.  He could simply tell the “woman” that he recognizes her and he acknowledges her good services as part of the Kings court, thus in effect “giving Satan his due”.  Satan, “paid” through this acknowledgment, has in effect fulfilled his charge and can return to the King (see Pirke DeRebbi Eliezer, 46).

On the holiest of days, when man is busy “scrutinizing his deeds” to make atonement for his failures to perfect himself and the world, he is also to make atonement for the mistake of not recognizing the role of evil in the world.  Indeed, it may very well be that it was this lack of understanding that lead to his personal failures, as it did for the angels.

The ritual of the identical goats provides “atonement” because it provides perspective.  That is, on the one hand, the affinity of the goats implies an affinity in purpose; on the other hand, their diverse destinies indicate an important distinction.  The one “to God”, acknowledging goodness, is brought as a sacrifice in the holy Temple.  The one “to Azazel”, however, is sent out to the wilderness, demonstrating that, though evil must be acknowledged, it is to be shunned; it is to be shoved backwards off a craggy precipice without remorse.

The atonement, then, of the affair of the fallen angels, is to “give Satan his due”, to acknowledge that the world is based on evil, and that perfection is our life long task, indeed the very raison d’etre of creation.  It is to recognize the irony in creation, that to be rid of evil, one must acknowledge the role of evil.  “This,” explains the Zohar, “is a deep tenet of faith”.


About the Author
Rabbi Mois Navon, an engineer and rabbi, has modeled himself on the principle of "Torah U'Madda" based on the philosophy of R. Soloveitchik as articulated by R. Lamm: Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. In this column Navon synthesizes Torah U'Madda to attain profound perspectives in the Parsha. His writings can be accessed at
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