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Torah Sparks

April 20, 2002 - 5762

Prepared by Rabbi David L. Blumenfeld, PhD
Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations

Annual Cycle: Lev. 16:1-20:27; Hertz, p. 480; Etz Hayim, p. 679
Triennial Cycle I: Lev. 16:1-17:16; Hertz, p. 480; Etz Hayim, p. 679
Haftarah: Amos 9:7-15; Hertz, p. 509; Etz Hayim, p. 705

Torah Portion Summary

(16:1-28) The order of worship on Yom Kippur, including the sacrifices and the practice of the scapegoat.

(16:29-34) Laws and practices of Yom Kippur, including the command to fast.

(17:1-16) The prohibition of slaughtering animals any place except the Altar; the prohibition of eating blood, or eating any animal which has died (nevelah) or been torn (trefah).

(18:1-30) A warning to keep away from all idolatrous practices; a list of the categories of forbidden marriage and other forbidden sexual relationships, followed by a general warning to avoid abominable behavior and follow God's ways.

(19:1-14) Laws of holiness, including the mitzvah of imitating God: "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy."

(19:15-22) Miscellaneous mitzvot which express the overall theme of this Torah portion, including just judicial proceedings, love of one's neighbor, and respecting elders.

(19:23-37) Other mitzvot, including "orlah", the prohibition of eating a tree's fruit until its fourth year; prohibitions of pagan and occult practices; the requirements to respect the aged, treat the stranger fairly, and have honest weights and measures.

(20:1-27) Miscellaneous prohibitions and a concluding passage on the laws of holiness which sanctify the Jewish people and make them distinctive among the nations.

Discussion Theme: What/Who Is A "Scapegoat"?

"Aaron shall take the two he-goats and... he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the Lord and the other marked for Azazel. Aaron shall bring forward the goat designated by lot for the Lord, which he is to offer as a sin offering; while the goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be left standing alive before the Lord, to make expiation with it and to send it off to the wilderness for Azazel." (Lev. 16:8-10)

"Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, 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 the iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness." (16:21-22)

"He who set the Azazel-goat free shall wash his clothes and bath his body in water: after that he may reenter the camp." (16:26)

  1. There are three principal interpretations of the term Azazel:
    1. It characterizes the animal. This interpretation is based upon the word which may be rendered to mean ez ozel - "a goat that departs" or (e)scape goat (hence, the word "scapegoat"). This is the view of the Septuagint.
    2. It denotes the place to which the animal was dispatched. This is the view of most rabbinic commentators. Saadiah ben Yosef Gaon (Babylonia, 882 - 942 C.E.) renders it as "rugged cliff". The inference is that it was a place that was craggy, with an abundance of sharp stones. The goat would certainly plunge to its death.
    3. Most modern biblical commentators agree that it is the name of an evil demon inhabiting the desert. In the "Book of I Enoch", Azaz'el appears as a ringleader of rebel angels who seduces mankind. Accordingly, in this ceremony, iniquity is being cast out into the mythic region of Azaz'el or evil. (Author)
  2. There seems to be a connection between the scapegoat and the (castigated) cult of se'irim in Lev. 17:7 - "that they may no longer offer their sacrifices to goat-demons after whom they stray." This was perceived by Abraham Ibn Ezra (Spain-Italy, 1089-1164 C.E.). In a cryptic comment he states: "If you are able to understand the mystery of the word "Azazel" you will comprehend both its mystery and the mystery of its name, for it has analogues in Scripture. And I will disclose to you a bit of a mystery: When you understand thirty-three, you will know it." (It so happens that) Lev.17:7, which refers to the riddance of the ancient cult of the se'irim, is the thirty-third verse after Lev 16:8 where the name Azazel is first mentioned. (Baruch Levine, JPS Torah Commentary, pp. 250-251)
  3. The rites of the scapegoat have frequently been compared with those prescribed for the treatment of certain ailments and infections. Thus, an individual afflicted with the symptoms of tsara'at, a skin disease, was to be purified by means of a complex ritual involving two birds, one to be slaughtered and the other to be sent forth into the open sky after being dipped in the blood of the first. (Ibid. see Lev. 14:49f for a description of the ritual)
  4. There are many different interpretations of the ritual of the scapegoat. Moses Maimonides ("RaMBaM", Spain - Egypt, 1135-1204) states that the scapegoat is an active allegory meant to make the sinner understand that his sins will inevitably lead him to a "wasteland". Isaac Abarbanel (Spain-Italy, 1437-1508) sees the two goats as reminders of brothers Esau and Jacob. Esau was a hunter in the wilderness, while Jacob's life was marked "for God". (Ronald Isaacs, Sidrah Reflections, p. 148)
  5. The term "scapegoat" was apparently coined by William Tyndale, the first great English Bible translator. Thereafter, it came to be used for a person, animal, orobject to which impurity or guilt of a community was formally transferred and then common usage today, a scapegoat is someone whom people blame for their own misfortunes, and even for their faults and sins - though the original notion of a scapegoat actually included the acknowledgment by the community of its own transgressions. (Bernard Bamberger, W. Gunther Plaut, Editor, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, p.860)

"Sparks" for Discussion:

We now have a good deal of background for our discussion of the "Azaz'el" ritual. Do you have any insights that might be added?

My colleague, Rabbi Philip Graubart, has suggested that though, according to our tradition, we may repent from our sins by "casting them out", we are cautioned by the "Azaz'el" ritual to remember that the realm of evil "croucheth by the door" - that it is still there, quite near to us. Evil is a constant. It's something that you have to deal with in life. You can't ignore it and hope it will go away.

Scapegoats. Who would you say were deemed as "scapegoats" in the past? Who appear to be the "scapegoats" in our world today?

Who could possibly be blamed as "scapegoats" in the future?

What kind of circumstances would you say creates "scapegoatism" in the world?

Is it an inevitable"human condition" or can it be prevented? How?

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