Nowadays we don’t need to torture goats to atone for the crappy ways we have behaved during the past year
There are no proper swear words in Hebrew – they are all borrowed from other languages. One of the insults that is actually in Hebrew, used widely when you want to get the upper hand in an argument, is Lech L’Azazel – even more effective when shouted while waving your hand.
Loosely translated, the equivalent expression in English is ‘go to Hell’. But Azazel is a mysterious word – Leviticus refers to it as the name of a supernatural demon mentioned in connection with the ritual of Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement. Outside of Satan, for whom Azazel kind of blazed the trail, he enjoys the distinction of being the most mysterious extra-human character in sacred literature.
The Parsha we read on Yom Kippur is a troublesome one for me. It’s about the ritual of animal sacrifice, which in the day, was the accepted gig to get in good with God. In the parsha, two goats, similar in appearance, height, cost, and time of selection are lined up on either side of the High Priest, who puts both his hands into a wooden case, and takes out two labels, one inscribed “for the Lord” and the other “for Azazel.”
The high priest then lays his hands upon the two goats and says, “A sin-offering to the Lord”. He ties a red woolen thread to the head of the goat “for Azazel” and recites a confession of sin and prayer for forgiveness. The poor scapegoat is then led to the precipice in the lonely wilderness and legend has it, pushed off the edge, separating it forever from the people of Israel.
Naḥmanides talks of the purpose of this ceremony as a symbolic expression of the idea that the people’s sins and their evil consequences were to be sent back to the desert, the spirit of desolation and ruin and source of all impurity, viewed by the people of Jerusalem as a means of ridding themselves of the sins of the year.
Nowadays we don’t need to torture goats to atone for the crappy ways we have behaved during the past year. Nor do we need a belief in an omnipotent God to spur us on in asking for forgiveness for our hurtful behavior to others, as well as to ourselves.
Each of us has two lives. The second starts when we first realise that we only have one. That is the point where we need to figure out what our values are and what we want our life to look like. Which path will we follow – the one towards the altar of light, or the one to Azazel? “Who shall live and who shall die?” Both involve a sacrifice –but searching for the light calls for atonement, a humility, an awareness of not only our inner selves, but how we connect with the wider world.
Leave it to us Jews: ten days after stuffing our faces with apples and honey cake on Rosh Hashanah, to devote 25 hours rehearsing our own deaths by fasting and wearing white, the colour of the traditional burial shroud. We don’t wash, shave, brush our teeth, wear makeup, have sex, or binge-watch Offspring.
Why do I bother seeking out a service to join every Yom Kippur? I think back to my teenage years of shul-hopping each Yomtov, to schmooze and check out the talent. A huge crowd of us hung around the front of the building chatting and flirting. No guards in those days.
But there was a “pinteleh yid” in me, a spark of Yiddishkeit, that needed to acknowledge Yom Kippur, drawn in by the haunting melodies rising with the blast of the shofar. Even my mother, who lost God somewhere between Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen, never setting foot inside a shul again, still quietly fasted on Yom Kippur.
The wonderful Israeli writer, Etgar Keret, writes that out of all the Jewish festivals and holy days it is Yom Kippur he loves most of all: “Maybe it’s because Yom Kippur is the only holiday I know that, because of its very nature, recognises human weakness. “On Yom Kippur, we’re not a heroic dynasty or a people, but a collection of individuals who look in the mirror, are ashamed of what demands shame, and ask forgiveness for what can be forgiven.”
We are drawn to come together as a community on Yom Kippur to atone for our sins, surrounded by others who join us in trying to figure out how we won’t individually or collectively lech l’azazel this year. But I say, every day should be a private mini Yom Kippur.
I wanted to finish by wishing everyone gmar hatima tova, but my computer autocorrected it to omar fatima ova. Google translate says that means “eloquent, captivating egg”. May we all continue to be eloquent, captivating eggs in the coming year.