Ari Sacher

‘Goats’ Parashat Acharei Mot 5784

Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, are struck dead when they offer [Vayikra 10:1] “a foreign fire [of incense], which He had not commanded them”. G-d tells Moshe that He must be worshipped on His terms, not on man’s terms. Aaron may enter the Holy of Holies only on one day a year, on the day of Yom Kippur. And even when Aaron enters the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, it must be as part of a well-defined service. The slightest straying from the bounds defined by the Torah and Aaron would be struck dead the same way his sons were. The Portion of Acharei Mot begins with an in-depth description of the Yom Kippur service: what the High Priest (Kohen Gadol) wore, how many times he bathed, how many sacrifices he brought, and how the incense was to be offered. The reward for meticulously following these instructions is great [Vayikra 16:17]: “And [the Kohen Gadol] shall affect atonement for himself, for his household, and for all the congregation of Israel.”

After describing the Yom Kippur service, the Torah segues to the prohibition of offering a sacrifice outside of the Tabernacle (Mishkan) [Vayikra 17:3-4]: “Any man of the House of Israel, who slaughters an ox, a lamb, or a goat inside the camp, or who slaughters outside the camp, but does not bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to offer up as a sacrifice to G-d before the Mishkan of G-d, this [act] shall be counted for that man as blood – he has shed blood – and that man shall be cut off from among his people”. Offering a sacrifice outside the Mishkan is sufficiently grievous to warrant the “Excision (Karet)” penalty[1]. The Torah explains why this particular sin is treated so harshly [Vayikra 17:7]: “And they shall no longer slaughter their sacrifices to the se’irim after which they stray.” The medieval commentators are in general agreement that the word “se’irim” means “demons”. The Ibn Ezra[2] explains that the word “se’irim” – literally “goats” – is used here because demons often take on a goat-like appearance and because people who see demons tend to become agitated (nis’ar”). Indeed, the JPS 2006 “Contemporary Torah”, the default translation on Sefaria, translates the word “se’ir” here as “goat-demon” and the Chabad Tanach translates it as “satyr” – a drunken woodland god with the ears of a goat. The concern is that if a person is permitted to offer sacrifices outside the confines of the Mishkan, then he might end up offering sacrifices to pagan gods.

What is the source of the Torah’s concern? Why should one action necessarily lead to the other? The offering of sacrifices outside the Mishkan should be no more conducive to pagan worship than to mixed dancing. The Ramban[3] answers by taking us on a deep dive into Jewish demonology. This is a topic in which I have little background, so I will leave it to others who are more qualified. The Kli Yakar[4]makes an interesting connection. As part of the Yom Kippur service described in the first part of the portion, two goats (se’irim) are chosen. One of them is offered as a sacrifice and the other one, called the “Goat of Azazel” or “scapegoat” is thrown off a cliff. Here, too, the Ramban turns to the dark arts, insinuating (rather explicitly and rather problematically) that the scapegoat is an example of giving the devil his due. The Kli Yakar comments that to prevent people from believing that the scapegoat is really, Heaven Forbid, offered to the demons, the Torah commands us immediately afterwards not to offer sacrifices outside of the Mishkan, and by doing so, to reinforce G-d’s will not to offer sacrifices to the dark side. He then explains, using advanced concepts of Jewish demonology and astrology, why the Ramban’s explanation is not heretical.

I would like to propose an alternate solution that, on the one hand, leverages the Kli Yakar’s connection to the scapegoat, but, on the other hand, shies away from concepts that I know little about. The first step is in noting that the prohibition to offer sacrifices outside the Mishkan is preceded by the words [Vayikra 17:2] “Speak to Aaron and his sons and to all the Israelite people”. Why are the Kohanim being warned? The Ibn Ezra explains that as they are the ones that are performing the actual offering of the sacrifices, they also require a warning. This does not make sense. Is the Torah really concerned that Aaron and his sons will also worship demons? Or could it be that something less sinister is involved?

According to the Rambam [Hilchot Teshuva 1:2], the scapegoat has incomparable powers of atonement: “Since the goat sent [to Azazel] atones for all of Israel, the High Priest confesses upon it as a spokesman for all of Israel as scripture [Vayikra 16:21] states: ‘He shall confess upon it all the sins of the children of Israel.’ The goat sent to Azazel atones for all the transgressions in the Torah, the severe and the lighter [sins]; those violated intentionally and those transgressed inadvertently; those which [the transgressor] became conscious of and those which he was not conscious of. All are atoned for by the goat sent [to Azazel].” The scapegoat atones for nearly every sin in the book[5]. Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveichik[6], writing in “On Repentance”, asks why the Rambam precedes the scapegoat’s capability for nearly unlimited atonement with the words “Since the goat sent [to Azazel] atones for all of Israel”. Rabbi Soloveichik answers that on Yom Kippur, man approaches G-d both as an individual and as part of a community. The atonement of the individual is not a sure thing. Atonement requires serious self-examination. A person must understand the immensity of his sin, how it has sullied his very being and how he must change his lifestyle in a way that prevents further sin. Even then, sometimes penitence is insufficient, and he must undergo suffering (yisurin) and even death. The atonement of the community is completely different. The Torah is full of verses that guarantee the eternal existence of the Jewish People[7]. The community does not plead for forgiveness, it demands it. This, teaches Rabbi Soloveichik, can explain the almost joyous tune sung by the congregation when we confess our sins on Yom Kippur “We are guilty! We are traitors! (Ashamnu! Bagadnu!)” We confess our sins because we know that G-d will forgive us –if we stand before Him as a community. Rabbi Soloveichik concludes that in order to ensure that we merit communal forgiveness, we must actively become a part of the community – to fight in its battles, to rejoice in its joy, and to mourn in its pain. Rabbi Soloveichik summarises: “The owner of the [scapegoat] is not a particular individual; it is the community… which possesses its own independent personality. The sacrifice of the scapegoat atones for the sins of each member of the people of Israel who adheres to [the community] and remains inseparably linked to it.”

When the Torah refers to the se’ir / goat in the context of offering sacrifices outside of the Mishkan, I suggest that it is referring to this communal aspect of prayer[8]. The urge to connect to G-d on a one-to-one basis is not new. Even Isaac [Bereishit 24:63] “went to the field to converse [with G-d]”. But when a person chooses to offer a sacrifice in his own back yard, ipso facto he detaches himself from the community and from the atonement of the scapegoat, turning the goat into a demon and brings upon himself his own demise. And by worshipping G-d in his own back yard, on his own terms, he is committing the very same sin as Nadav and Avihu subjecting himself, Heaven Forbid, to the very same punishment.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5784

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Sheindel Devorah bat Rina, Rina bat Hassida, and Esther Sharon bat Chana Raizel

[1]Karet” literally means being “cut off” from the Jewish People. The mechanics of Karet are unclear but it is clear that Karet is meted out by G-d and not by man. Some suggest that one who warrants karet will die young or childless. Others suggest that it is a punishment that is meted out on the soul and not the body.

[2] Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, usually referred to as “The Ibn Ezra,” lived in Cordoba, Spain, at the turn of the 12th century.

[3] Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, known by his acronym “Ramban”, lived in Spain and Israel in the 13th century.

[4] Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, who was the Chief Rabbi of Prague in the beginning of the 17th century, wrote a commentary on the Torah called “Kli Yakar”.

[5] Sins that it does not atone for are explicitly laid out in the 3rd and 4th chapters of Hilchot Teshuva.

[6] Rabbi Soloveichik was the leader of Modern Orthodox Jewry in North America during the second half of the previous century.

[7] See, for instance, Malachi [3:6].

[8] Prayer is a relatively recent invention. G-d was originally worshipped via sacrifices, see the Talmud Tractate Berachot [26b].

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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