Leviticus 16:1-17 - Azazel

·       “To God whose name I dare to utter, I declare that Your people, the family of Israel, has failed, it has sinned, it has done wrong. To God whose name I dare to utter, pardon the failures, the sins and the evil, which have been committed against You, by Your own people, the family of Israel.”

·       These words area taken from the Yom Kippur Musaf service, which re-enacts the ancient ritual which the High Priest performed. Jonathan Magonet in our machzor called this “the deepest part of the day, the centre of the mystery into which we have been travelling.” For me, it’s one of the highlights of Yom Kippur, and with the lunchtime crowds gone, you are guaranteed a great seat to watch all the action. Pesach has just finished, and already I’m talking about Yom Kippur! That’s because today’s Torah reading describes the origin of this ritual.

·       What actually happened? Well, Aaron bathed, put on his Yomtov clothes, sacrificed animals and sprinkled their blood. The holiest man in Israel made atonement, for his own sins, for his family’s sins, and finally for the sins of the people. The ritual had to be done exactly right; the High Priest was putting his life on the line. But as long as he did the job well, everyone would be fine. Just a few verses later in Leviticus, we read: “For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to cleanse you, of all your sins” (16:30).

·       Now, this is a long way from today’s Yom Kippur. There is nothing in the original ritual about inner contrition, or striving for higher standards of conduct. The prime aim of the Yom Kippur sacrifice was purifying the Temple in an Autumn (rather than a Spring) clean. This somehow cleansed the people. A bit like a parent demanding a child tidy its room. Sins leave stains on our characters, and these need to be cleansed, before we can be liberated from what is holding us back and begin anew.

·       Today’s haftarah reading symbolically describes how the Yom Kippur ritual changed. After the second Temple was destroyed in 70CE, sacrifices were replaced with fasting, prayer and penitence. The emphasis moved to correct behaviour, involving repairing one’s soul. Yom Kippur eventually became the most powerful ritual in the Jewish calendar; the annual occasion for personal repentance and forgiveness.

·       So as Judaism matured, the ritual changed from something external that was done to me to something internal that I do for myself. This change meant people could no longer look to someone else to do atonement for them, but had to take personal responsibility for their own actions.

·       That reminds me of Moshe the Jewish painter, who always tried to make a bit on the side, by thinning down paint. He got a job to paint a synagogue which had to be finished before Yom Kippur, and as usual he thinned down the paint. It was Kol Nidre and he had just painted two coats, when suddenly there was a huge clap of thunder, and an enormous rain cloud appeared from nowhere and washed off the new paint. Another thunderbolt knocked Moshe off his ladder and he knew his time was up. “Oh God, what do you want of me?” he cried out. A booming voice came out of the heavens: “Repaint! Repaint! And don’t thin any more!”

·       We also read today, that the High Priest drew a lot over two goats, sacrificing one to God and sending the other off into the wilderness, for ‘Azazel’. The two goats, were identical in appearance, yet had opposite fates; it was pure luck which goat survived and which died. What a visceral and absurd ritual! – something very unusual in Judaism. What’s it all about?

·       The goats symbolised two inclinations, one bad (called yetser hara), where we react instinctively and emotionally relying on our amygdala. The other is good (yetser hatov). when we act consciously and rationally, using our pre-frontal cortex. The Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman, wrote a book about these different impulses called ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’. In general, we should nurture the slow and thoughtful style, but both styles - both goats - are us.

·       Now, the word Azazel literally means “the goat [ez] that was sent away [azal]”. Hence the English word “(e)scapegoat” which was coined by William Tyndale in his 1530 English translation of the Bible. Today, we use the word ‘scapegoat’, to mean blaming someone else for our troubles.  When facing problems it cannot solve, a society can project its frustrations onto a minority group, a scapegoat, that is held responsible for the troubles of the community. It’s much easier to blame others, than to honestly face one’s own problems. For centuries, this has been one a major cause of anti-Semitism. Today, Putin is trying to make a scapegoat out of Ukraine. Maybe the UK government is scapegoating asylum seekers. Blaming others is intrinsically wrong; its evading the real issue.

·       But, its emotionally tempting, so people, let alone politicians, often say, “It was the best that could have been done.” “It was a small mistake.” “Someone else was to blame.” Confronted by their guilt, Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent, the Israelites even blamed Moses for taking them away from slavery. But people who blame others and who see themselves as victims, just remain victims. The Bible tells these stories of moral failure, to show we need to try harder.

·       The capacity to admit mistakes and take responsibility - is hard. It means being honest with oneself, and so being vulnerable. That is the power of Yom Kippur; it helps encourage people to say: “I got it wrong. I made a mistake.” The simple message of Yom Kippur, is that people can deal with their own missteps. It’s not a matter of denying our sins or anxieties, let alone blaming others for them. We confess them. We accept responsibility for them. Then we let go of the feelings of guilt and shame, and forgive both others, and ourselves. We can change and move on.

·       Psychologists call this having ‘an internal locus of control’, which is invariably a good thing. It is the belief that we can control our own lives, and not think that we are controlled by outside factors, by luck, by events we can’t influence or even by a High Priest. Of course bad things still happen, but we can choose how to react to them. We simply don’t need to blame others when we are upset or frustrated.

·       The Azazel ritual is the precise opposite of scapegoating; it ensured that blame doesn’t happen. It was a great way of dealing with guilt - putting feelings of shame or anger onto something external, and sending it far away, never to return. I love the imagery. It’s an ancient ritual, but so relevant today. I could swap the goat for a cathartic letter I write and which no one else ever needs to read. But it would be much more fun seeing  the Rabbi shoo a goat out of the tent! Anyway I’ve got just under 6 months to work out what feelings to put on my personal Azazel this Yom Kippur. And so have you. Shabbat shalom.