In the days of the Beit Hamikdash the focal point of Yom Kippur was not the stirring the melody of Kol Nidrei, which we have just recited, or the heartfelt pleas of Neilah. It was instead the ritual of seir l’Hashem and seir l’Azazel, the marking off of one goat for divine service and another to be sent off to Azazel. The Torah tell us that, “he [Aaron or the Kohen Gadol] shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the Lord and the other marked for Azazel.”
One goat, the one designated for God, will be brought as a korban, an offering, in the Mikdash, but the other, marked for Azazel, will endure a very different fate. “Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat [the one not designated to be brought in the Mikdash] and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Jewish People, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man. Thus, the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set off into the wilderness.”
The story of the scapegoat, the goat marked for Azazel, does not end there. The Mishnah explains that the man whom the Torah suggests is meant simply to lead the scapegoat off into the wilderness actually does something far more dramatic. “And the man would throw [the scapegoat] backwards off of the cliff, and the goat rolled, and descended, and before it reached half the mountain, it was broken to pieces.” Even seen against the backdrop of other sacrifices that were brought in the Mikdash this ritual was shocking, violent, and dramatic. How could the Kohen Gadol magically, it seems, transmute the sins of the Jewish people onto a goat? And who was Azazel? Why would Azazel want a goat filled with the sins of the Jewish people?
There is a fascinating Midrash found in the Yalkut Shimoni which offers an answer to these questions. According to the Midrash, Azazel was an angel. Who, along with another angel Shemhazai, saw all the sins of the people in the generations before Noah’s flood. The two angels claimed that if they were on earth they would sanctify God’s name. God, however, told them that if they were on Earth and had free will, they would do far worse. The angels sought to prove God wrong and asked Him to send them down to Earth in physical bodies. God agreed, and in Paradise Lost like fashion, the angels quickly began to engage in all sorts of evil.
At first, they were enticed by a wide variety of material pleasures. Then their behavior took an even more ominous turn. According to the Midrash, Azazel and Shemhazi introduced weapons into the world, increasing bloodshed and warfare to new levels. They also encouraged people to eat meat long before the Torah permitted it. Ultimately, the Midrash tells us, Shemhazai recognized his mistakes, and began a long process of teshuva. As a result, he was able to leave the bounds of earth but is still not welcome back into the heavens. Shemhazai remains suspended between two worlds, one mundane and one holy. Azazel, on the other hand, refuses to acknowledge his mistakes or do teshuva, he simply continues his evil ways. That is why, the Midrash concludes, the Kohen Gadol, in an act of repentance, would send the people’s sins towards Azazel, the root of so many of humanity’s sins.
The sins of the Jewish people did not of course magically enter the goat. But the Kohen Gadol’s recitation was a means of projecting our mistakes outward. Implicit in this confession is a declaration that these actions, our mistakes and our sins, do not really represent us, they are not who we are, they belong to someone else. According to Shadal, an early 19th century rabbinic commentary, the seir l’Azazel, the scapegoat, did not even really have to be killed. Originally, he writes, they would just send it out to pasture. But as the land became more populated, they had to kill it, so the goat would not return to the inhabited areas. The goat was only killed so that it would never be seen or heard from again, just as our sins once casted out cannot be allowed to return. This moment provided the Jewish people with an opportunity to consider which parts of themselves were truly theirs, what values, morals, and beliefs did they need to internalize and hold onto, and what needed to be thrown aside. The essential element of the scapegoat ritual is not the death of the goat, but the return of our sins to their root.
Azazel is viewed as the root of sin not just because he introduced bloodshed into the world. After all, he was joined by his earstwhile compatriot Shemhazai in that pursuit. Instead, Azazel is seen as the root of sin because he refuses to change. Azazel is totally satisfied with his lot in life. He sees no reason to grow, no reason to try to do teshuva, he is totally complacent. As a result, not of his sins but of his complacency, Azazel is cast to the edge of the Jewish consciousness. To a place where when his name is read few people even know what it means. To be cast to the furthest edge of our consciousness and memory is the fate of those who do not strive for more. In contrast, the angel Shemhazai, was not afraid to acknowledge his mistakes, he was not afraid to give up what he had, even to given up what he enjoyed, all to begin the slow process of change and teshuva. Shemhazai is a not a heroic figure, he is not perfect, he doesn’t complete the process of teshuva or return to the heavens, but he is willing to try. Shemhazai is unwilling to be complacent, he is unwilling to remain stuck where he is. Suspended between heaven and earth, he knows that life isn’t about perfection, but it is about growth.
Complacency is easy. We live busy and demanding lives in which it can be hard to stop and think about what we want to do differently, how we want to grow and change. But Yom Kippur gives us this opportunity. With all of its restrictions and distinctions, the next twenty-five hours are a moment for us to step back, think, and ask ourselves “are we becoming, or just being?” Are we living lives of complacency or are we looking for opportunities to grow and are we willing to take them? Let’s spend this Yom Kippur seeking out those moments for growth and looking for moments to heal our relationships with God, our loved ones, and even ourselves. So that even as we may be suspended between heaven and earth, between the holy and the profane, we can move a little closer to the divine. G’mar Chatima Tova. May we all be signed and sealed for good in the coming year.