The “Scapegoat” Ritual

Yom Kippur 2022

"Once in a while you find a place on earth that becomes your very own. A place undefined. Waiting for you to bring your color, your self. A place untouched, unspoiled, undeveloped. Raw, honest, and haunting.”


It was to such a place that every Yom Kippur the ancient Priests would send a goat that carried as its burden the sins of the people of Israel.  It was called “Seir L’Azazel”.

What exactly does the term “seir la’azazel/a goat for Azazel” mean?  It is found nowhere else in the Bible outside of this morning’s Torah reading.  The truth is no one really knows for sure.

Scholars have suggested three possibilities:

  • Azazel is the name of the place in the wilderness to which the goat was dispatched.  
  • Azazel is a word that describes the goat itself:  “ez”= goat;  “azal” = go away.  Hence, the goat that goes away. 
  • Azazel is an ancient name given to the demonic ruler of the wilderness. The goat then becomes the personification of the evil wilderness.

In the words of the Or Hachayim: The barren desert is the habitat of Satan.  In fact, the reason such a piece of earth is called “Azazel” is because it’s Satan’s habitat, as  “Aza Zal” = in Aramaic, literally, the place of a base or mean force.

It’s this last interpretation which leads the Sages in the Talmud to expand the ritual to include not just the sending away of the goat, but the total destruction of the goat.

In Massechet Yoma the Talmud tells how the goat would be pushed off a cliff at a rocky ledge so that by the time it was halfway down the mountain its limbs would have been torn apart as it suffered a certain and violent death.

To be sure, the Bible at times used the image of the wilderness as a metaphor for complete desolation, an evil place, a place of danger, peril, hunger and thirst.  In the Torah, the midbar, the wilderness, is the setting for sin:  the building of the golden calf, the rebellion of Korach, and the people’s confrontations with God over water, all took place in the desert.

Linda Hogan, a novelist and poet who has written about the Indigenous People’s connection to land, put it this way:

“The wilderness, mentioned in the Bible 300 times, is almost always referred to as the place of evil, the devil’s place.  It is seen as a dangerous realm, the untouched place of demons.  It lives at the edge of the civilized world, and in the human mapping, it is the place inside humans that behaves according to instinct and inner drive and cannot be controlled by will.  Wilderness is what the dominating have tried to push away from themselves, both in the outside world and inside their own bodies.”

Rabbi S.R. Hirsch stated it more succinctly when he wrote: Azazel is the “uncontrolled might of sensuality.”

Against this backdrop, it makes sense to explain our story in terms of the phenomenology of riddance, of doing away with what is to be avoided.  The High Priest placed all our evil, all our sins, on this goat, this seir la’azazel, which itself represented evil, and sent it and our sins into the wilds of evil to be completely destroyed.

This is classic scapegoating:  we place our sins on the animal, and the animal gets destroyed as a result of them, instead of us getting destroyed.

Violent scapegoating rituals took place in other areas of the ancient world too but the point is that nowhere in our Biblical account here in Vayikra 16 does it mandate or even suggest that this goat for Azazel was to be mistreated in any way.

While the Talmud records a grisly end to the ritual, the description in the Torah describes that the goat is to be set free in the wilderness.  The word used again and again is “sheelach”, to set free, the very same word used repeatedly by Moses as he pleaded with Pharaoh to release the Jews from Egypt: “shelach et ami/set my people free!”

While in the Bible we do find some negative associations with the wilderness, we also find some very beautiful and powerful associations with the desert.  In fact, one of my favourite verses, from the book of Jeremiah, reads:  “I recall the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me into the desert, a land not sown.”

The Gerer Rebbe, a brilliant Hassidic Master, understood that reference to the desert as a place of spiritual beauty where God and Israel’s love for one another flowed freely and passionately, unencumbered yet by the responsibilities and obligations of the covenant that were to come at Sinai.

Other prophets such as Hosea, Samuel and Isaiah romanticized the wilderness and referred to it as a place of purification, as a place of refuge.

In fact, Rabbi Hirsch even noted that halakhically speaking, there were only two requirements concerning the goat for Azazel ritual:  one was the hargalah – the lottery to decide which goat was to be sacrificed and which was to be sent to the wilderness; and the second was the vidui – the confession of the people’s sins upon the goat selected for Azazel.

Neither escorting the goat to the desert, nor pushing it off a cliff, was required, according to the halakhah.

The violent Talmudic description of the ritual, what has become known as the “scapegoat” reading, deviates radically from the straight reading of the Torah.

The question is, why?  To answer that we have to understand what the goat ritual symbolized in the Yom Kippur ceremonies of the High Priest, what its original message was and its connection to the Day of Atonement. 

Anthropologist Mary Douglas, in a book entitled Leviticus as Literature, suggests a fascinating answer.  First off, she notes how the two-goat ritual is anticipated by rituals recorded earlier in Leviticus.  The two goats parallel the two pairs of birds used in the rites to purify a leper.  In chapter 14 we read how two birds were taken – one was killed and the other, after being dipped in the blood and sprinkled over the leper, is set free.

The same is done for cleansing a house struck with leprosy: two birds again, one killed, the other dipped in its blood, and “he shall let the living bird go out of the city into the open field.” (Lev. 14:53)

Douglas then cites parallels between the rituals of anointing a cured leper and that of consecrating Aaron and his sons as priests by Moses:  both involved anointing the tip of the right ear, the right thumb, and the big toe on the right foot.  She notes these in the same context as the rituals with the goats and birds because she sees in all of them a fundamental premise of the Vayikra text, something she calls “Uneven Complementarity”.  

“Uneven Complementarity” suggests that the world, all facets of it, is made up of pairs.  One is always “chosen”, or selected for sacred service, and one is not and set free.  She sees it in the Torah with animals, with sides of the body, and even with people.

Douglas understands the book of Vayikra and its laws and rituals as an ongoing commentary on the biblical narratives that shaped the lives of the Jewish people.

Recall the grossly uneven destinies of pairs of brothers in the book of Breishit: Isaac and Ishmael; Jacob and Esav.  One is “chosen” and becomes defined by the Brit, by covenantal responsibilities, while the other is allowed to go free.

As we read over Rosh Hashanah, Isaac is chosen for God and his life becomes defined by the covenant.  Ishmael is not chosen, and instead, his mother Hagar is told by God, as they wandered in the wilderness, that her son will grow up to be a “wild ass of a man”.  Douglas suggests that these words were not meant harshly by God, but simply that Ishmael would be unconstrained by the covenant.

She writes: “There is no judgment against Ishmael [by the Bible]; he is neither immoral nor destined to an unhappy or godless life.  He is not condemned; he is free to roam the wilderness and will be a great prince.  He is like the bird and the goat which were NOT chosen, while Isaac is parallel to the goat or the bird on which the lot of the Lord fell, destined to a sacred calling.”

How amazing to read our Yom Kippur Torah portion as a commentary on, or a ritual reenactment of, our Rosh Hashanah Torah reading!

But what is the message conveyed in all of this?

Here’s where Mary Douglas’ anthropological analysis becomes most meaningful for us today.  She answers by saying, “the Leviticus writer may be mourning the loss of the other half.”

These rituals teach us a timeless lesson about complementarity.  Douglas continues:

“The pairs are not so much uneven as different; respecting their difference is symbolic of completion and totality.  Recall that parallelism is not just a way of writing, not just a stylistic device.  It is only possible to write in parallels because it is a way of thinking, which is also a way of living in which it is impossible to organize except in terms of wholes and their halves, sometimes equal, more often unequal.”

So the ritual of atonement (at-one-ment), the separating of two goats, is one in which we mourn the loss of one-ness, of wholeness.

Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esav, the Northern and Southern kingdoms:  wholes divided and left to vastly different destinies.

The two-goat ritual in Vayikra on the Day of Atonement is a reenactment of the parting of ways between brothers, family members, communities and nations.  It is a mourning of the loss of the other half.  It is a story repeated all too often in history.  It’s humanity’s core myth. 

It is a story we can each relate to personally, as we consider those from whom we remain estranged – emotionally, socially, ideologically.

It is a story we can relate to nationally, as the Jewish people in Israel and the world over suffer the consequences of being violently and morally estranged from our other halves in human civilization.   It is a story that tragically is at the center of so much other conflict in the world as well.  In these stories and this ritual we mourn humanity’s existential rift.  We mourn the gulf that divides the world between those who love peace and pursue justice and those who show disdain for life and embrace war.

What starts out as separate but equal in the biblical narrative quickly degenerates into competition, envy, hatred, and eventually war and death.  We even see it in the interpretations of the two-goat ritual that move from the biblical account of the goat for Azazel being set free in the wilderness to the Talmudic account of it being pushed off a cliff to its death.

On the Day of Atonement, on Yom Kippur, when we come face to face most directly with our own mortality, our own individual destinies, our prayers suddenly focus on an ancient ritual that reminds us of the connection between our own fate and that of our “other”.

The two goats replay the diverging destinies of our biblical ancestors and their “others”.  The ritual of the goats is a required step in the forgiving of our sins to teach us that full atonement is not available until we come face to face with our estrangement from one another; the source of so much of our pain.  

There is also a deeper level on which this ritual of the two goats operates, and that is with regards to our inner lives, and our estrangement from our own selves.  For the divide between human beings is a reflection of what divides a person from their own self, from the Source of Life itself.  The gulf that separates two halves is what separates us from our own potential, from living the fullest possible expression of ourselves.

But all of this begs an important question:  if this ritual of the two goats precedes and is a prerequisite to the granting of forgiveness for our sins, a prerequisite to atonement (at-one-ment) which suggests a return to wholeness, why do we not engage in a ritual of symbolic reunification of two halves, a ritual of reconnection between the selected and the other?  Why does the ritual replay the separation and not the reintegration?

For this we have to think about the nature of Brit, of covenant, which is at the heart of this all: how to live covenantally with God and with others, and how to repair such covenants when they break down.

The verb used in the Torah to make a covenant between two entities is “lichrot brit”.  But “Lichrot” means to cut, or to separate.  To “cut a covenant”, something that binds people, would seem to be an oxymoron!  

The Maharal MiPrague, an important Talmudic scholar, mystic and philosopher and the leading rabbi in Prague in the 16th century, explains the reason this term for cutting is used to cement a connection between two things by explaining the paradoxical nature of love.  

He teaches that when we want to get close to someone, we don’t give up everything we are or have.  Instead, we cut out or separate a special piece of ourselves and share it with the other person.  This way we’ll always remain close to them for we will always be drawn not just to them for who they are, but we’ll be drawn to them because they share such an intimate part of us.

But there’s more:  when we love another by cutting off and giving them a piece of ourselves, we are also preserving the rest of ourselves for us. This is the part that many people don’t get.  Love doesn’t mean giving all of yourself to another, and thereby erasing the uniqueness that is you, the independent and separate mind, body, spirit, dreams and drive that is you.  Love does not mean the blending together of two distinct entities such that each of their distinctiveness is overwhelmed and dissolved forever.  Love means connecting to another without sacrificing, or demanding the sacrifice of, individuality.  

It’s all about setting the right boundaries.  If we set them wisely, we can get close to lots of people.  If there are no boundaries, if closeness is totally unrestrained, love can be destructive, just as we saw in the deaths of Nadav And Avihu that open our Torah reading.  We’ve all seen relationships suffer, if not die, when too many assumptions are made and boundaries are ignored.

So what appears as an oxymoron is actually sacred truth:  we “cut a covenant” with each other, we separate out pieces of ourselves to share, so as not to sacrifice the whole of who we are.  Covenants then endure when the uniqueness of each partner is maintained, respected and valued.

In English, the word “cleave” has the same connotation as “lichrot brit”.  To cleave means to cut or slice, as in “a cleaver”.  But “to cleave” to something actually means to hold fast to it.

All of this comes to teach us that separation, or standing apart, of friends, lovers, nations, and even God and humanity, is not in and of itself a bad or destructive thing.  What makes separation bad or destructive is what we do with it.  Do we use it to maintain perspective on the uniqueness of each creation, to really see each other and then bond with openness and respect, or do we use it to distance ourselves from one another so much that we confuse our own uniqueness with the sum total of what is good and sacred in the world? Do we divide in order to reunite with respect for each other, or do we divide to forever walk away?  

Remember that Mary Douglas explains the ritual of the two goats as “mourning the loss of the other half.”   And I suggested that confronting the divide between us and the other is a necessary step in the process of teshuvah, of repentance and reconciliation.  

The separating of the two goats is a required step for forgiveness in the same way that a covenant can only be made by cutting off a piece of oneself.  We step away from one another in order to truly behold each other, to be able to see and honor each other’s uniqueness.

And as the goat ritual also teaches us, we must do so from a place of vulnerability.

The wilderness, for all its beauty, can be dangerous and threatening.  And for that reason as well it is the place to which the Seir La’Azazel must go on its journey towards affecting atonement.  For the very same reason the wilderness is the place where the Torah itself was given, binding God and Israel to one another.  

Why?  Because in order to truly join together with another we must expose our vulnerabilities.  We have to risk ourselves in order to be close to another.  

This is also why a covenant is made with the language of “cutting/koret brit”:  because cutting exposes vulnerability.  Skin is the armor that protects us from exposing our inner world of feelings, of beliefs, of dreams.  It is this armor that must be pierced in order to allow ourselves to take the risk of sharing intimately with another, of dedicating ourselves to another.  The irony is that exposing ourselves and our vulnerability is precisely what brings us the strength to be close to the other half.

Look at us today, on this day of Yom Kippur:  we’re tired, hungry, thirsty and weak.  And as the day wears on we will become even more so.  But it’s in this state of vulnerability, this state of exposure and brutal honesty, that our hearts and souls and bodies can sing a song of integrity and longing, to reconnect with God, with self, and with the other.

And so, the goat must wander in the land of vulnerability to reach the place of reconciliation, as we must open ourselves in order to close the gap between one another.

These are timeless lessons that speak to the truth of our relationships and our struggles for wholeness, for at-one-ment, on every level, on every day:  as we seek inner unity, as we work on family and friendship, as we struggle for peace with our enemies, and as we search for the Divine within and around us.

Wholeness will come only when we confront brokenness.  Wholeness will come only when we learn to use brokenness to see the beauty in all the myriad pieces of life.  Wholeness will come only when we accept the truth of our eternal connectedness to one another.

In every generation the goat is set free in the wilderness.  In every generation we must decide whether and how to bring it home.