There is a mystery at the heart of today’s Torah reading.  In general, the
parshah makes sense, or at least it makes sense why we would be asked to
read it on the morning of Yom Kippur.  Taken from the middle of the book
of Leviticus, it tells the story of the very first Yom Kippur-the
instructions given through Moses to Aaron, the High Priest, about how and
when he could safely enter and exit the Kodesh Kodashim, the Holy of
Holies, the most sacred precinct of the Tabernacle.  It details the
elaborate sacrificial ritual that is supposed to attend his entry, and
lets us know that the reason for going in at all to is to affect a very
powerful atonement on behalf himself and all the Children of Israel-to
bring about some profound reconciliation with God.

The passage concludes by instructing us that this isn’t meant to be done
only once.  It’s for all time: ve-hayta zot lachem l’khukat olam lichaper
al-b’nei yisrael mikol khatotam achat ba’shanei-and this will be a
longstanding statute for you, to purge the Children of Israel of all of
their sins once a year.  This ritual was slightly modified into the Yom
Kippur service of the Jerusalem Temples, and made its way much altered
down to us.  But, at its heart, all of these manifestations are of a piece
with what’s described in the Torah, which is why we continue to read this
passage today-to remind us of where we came from, and to see what we can
learn from our origins.

It’s true, however, that the details of the day have changed almost beyond
recognition.  Though the ancient Israelites also afflicted themselves with
fasting, the central ritual of their Yom Kippur was not prayer-avodah
she’balev-the service of the heart; but the ultimate avodah b’gashmiut-the
very physical form of worship known as animal sacrifice.  It is in the
details of the sacrificial service that we find our mystery.  Actually,
it’s a mystery within a mystery-a situation in which the explanation
offered for a behavior makes even less sense than the behavior itself.

Many of the sacrificial details might seem familiar from analogous
passages of the Torah discussing the slaughter of bulls and goats and such
for the sake of an olah, a burnt offering, or a chattat, a sin offering,
both of which are stipulated in our parsha.  But then, right in the middle
of all of this, we find something unusual: v’lakakh et shnei  haseirim
v’he’emad otam lifnei adonai petach ohel mo’ed; v’natan aharon al shnei
hse’irim goralot goral echad l’adonai v’goral echad l’azazel.  “He should
take two goats, and stand them before Adonai at the entrance of the Tent
of Meeting; and Aaron should cast lots over the two goats, one lot for
Adonai, and one lot for Azazel.”

This is the famous scapegoat ritual: two identical goats are presented at
the Tabernacle, and a game of chance determines which is sacrificed on the
altar, and which is symbolically invested with all of the sins and
transgressions of the people and their priest, and let go to wander the

This is just not a very common practice in the Torah’s annals of
sacrifice.  There is one thing that might be comparable, the ceremony for
reintroducing a formerly tamei, unclean, person into the camp, which
involves the sacrifice of one bird and the release of another, but beyond
that there is nothing like it.  And even if we accept that as an analogue,
it doesn’t explain the word “Azazel.”  What is this “Azazel”-this term
that is balanced against Adonai in the scales of the ritual?

When I was a kid in Day School, we learned somehow that “Azazel” was a
Hebrew word for Hell, and ran around giddily telling each other to “lech
l’azazel.”  But I found a more intriguing answer to the question in a
traditional commentary, albeit an answer that tweaks the question into the
even more challenging puzzle.  Avraham Ibn Ezra, a Medieval Sephardic
commentator on the Torah, who is generally given pride of place just
behind Rashi and is also sometimes described as a sly, proto-modernist,
has this to say about Azazel: ve’im yekholta l’vahin  hasod she-hu achar
milat azazel, he writes-“And if you strive to understand the secret of the
word Azazel, know that the mystery and the mystery of its name have
analogues in the Torah.  And I will reveal to you a little of the mystery
with a hint-when you are 33 years old you will understand.”

As cryptic as THIS sounds, I tell you it is only after we’ve figured out
what Ibn Ezra is alluding to that we come to the real mystery.  He is
being very coy, because what he has come to believe about the word Azazel
makes him uncomfortable.  As is the case with a number of his rmazim, his
hints, he is trying to say that he has uncovered something that might
trouble the pious, and so he’ll only say it between the lines, and hamevin
yavin, those who understand will understand.

What is the substance of his hint?  It turns out if you count exactly 33
verses, become 33 years old as he puts it, from the first mention of
Azazel, you come to this verse of Torah: “v’lo yizbechu od et zvkheyhem
lase’irim asher hem zonim achareihem-“And they [the Children of Israel]
may no longer offer their sacrifices to the goats, [or, more likely, the
goat demons] after whom they go astray.”

This is the verse of Torah that Ibn Ezra considers analogous to,
explanatory of, the mystery Azazel.  Basically, he think this Azazel is
one of the goat demons-some kind of horned, rutting beastgod of the
wilderness that captivated the imagination of a pastoral people to the
extent that they propitiated him with animal sacrifices.  It is this
possibility, which he clearly considers very very likely, that gives him
such pause-that makes him take refuge in hints and coy explanations; his
urge toward truth locked in combat with his impulse of self-censorship.
And it is this explanation that leads us to our ultimate puzzle:  if we
take Ibn Ezra’s explanation, and I really don’t see any reason why not to,
not having found a better one, then we must somehow explain the fact that
in the heart of the most sacred moment of the Jewish calendar, at the very
doorway of the Holy of Holies, God is asking the people, God is asking the
High Priest Aaron in particular, to commit a flagrant blasphemy: to make a
sacrificial offering that is only 33 verses later branded, in no uncertain
terms, a salacious and forbidden act.

I do think that our parsha provides an explanation for this sanctioned
blasphemy, but it’s very subtle.  To find it, we have to pick up a slender
thread sticking out of the first verses of the passage, and follow it
where it leads.

What makes Torah unique is that it is essentially a law book coated in
stories.  Even when we are given detailed rules, as we are in this
chapter, it is never out of narrative context.  And so we find the
following details at the start of the passage: Vayidaber adonai el moshe
acharei mot shnei b’nei aharon b’karvatam lifnei adonai vaymuto. Vayomer
adonai el moshe daber el aharon akhikha. “And Adonai spoke to Moses after
the death of the two sons of Aaron, who had drawn near before Adonai and
died.  And Adonai said to Moses, speak to Aaron, your brother.”  It is not
at just any time that God decides to give these rules about how to
properly approach the Holy of Holies for this ceremony of
reconciliation-it is soon after the unusual deaths of Nadav and Avihu,
about whom we read the following in an earlier chapter of Leviticus: “And
the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, each took their firepans and put fire
in them, and incense on top of the fire, and brought before Adonai a
strange fire that had not been commanded of them.  And a fire went out
from before Adonai, and devoured them, and they died before Adonai.”

Rashi himself addresses the question of why a blatant reference to this
incident precedes the laws of the Yom Kippur approach to the Holy place,
citing a teaching from the ancient midrash: “What does this teach us?” he
asks us rhetorically.  “Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah compares it to a sick
person whose doctor tells him not to eat a certain food or sleep on a
certain bed.  If a second doctor comes along and tells him: don’t eat a
certain food or sleep on a certain bed, or else you will die like
so-and-so did, it will make more of an impression.”  The suggestion here
is that Nadav and Avihu are being portrayed to their father as negative
examples.  They, too, were priests, and they attempted a kind of access
to the sacred that was impermissible, and so they suffered the
consequences.  “You are the High Priest-make sure that you do it right,
so that you don’t die like those two so-and-sos.”

The thing about Rashi is that he is essentially an anthologizer, bringing
all kinds of bits and pieces from the Ashkenazic branch of rabbinic
tradition to bear on Torah.  Therefore he does not always come off as
consistent, seeming to say contradictory things in different places.  Such
is the case with Nadav and Avihu.  If we go back again to the incident
itself, we find that it is followed by a complicated statement from Moses.
 Vayomer Moshe el Aharon, and Moses said to Aaron, his bereaved brother:
“It is as Adonai has said, saying ‘By those that draw near to me I will be
sanctified, and before the entire nation I will be honored.”  What does
Rashi say about this?  He offers a commentary in the voice of Moses, “This
is what Moses was really saying to Aaron: “My brother, I knew that this
House would be sanctified by the intimates of God, and I had in mind that
this would be me or you.  Now I see that these two are greater than either
me or you.”

I had a teacher in Israel named Ari Elon, who had a radical take on this
piece of Rashi.  He told me he thought it meant that Moses knew all along
that someone was going to have to die for the sake of the sacred place,
and that what Moses is saying here is that Nadav and Avihu paid that
necessary price.  Whether you want to go down this road or not, it is
still clear that what Rashi is suggesting here is almost the exact
opposite of what he said elsewhere.  Nadav and Avihu are not negative
examples but beloveds of the Most High, who has embraced them in arms of
fire.  They are not sinners-they are martyrs, or, at least we are now left
with both of these possibilities hovering in our minds as we contemplate
the carnage.  But, either way, Aaron’s response, following immediately on
Moses’s words of consolation, is the same:  vayidom Aharon-and Aaron was

Some read Aaron’s silence as acquiescence: he accepts what Moses has to
tell him, he accepts that there is a good explanation-either his sons were
very bad or they were very good-and he moves on.  But there are other
kinds of silence, and I suspect if this were really finished business
between Aaron and God then we wouldn’t have heard about it again; it
certainly would not have been referred to as the touchstone of Yom Kippur,
the narrative context for this eternal holiday of reconciliation with the

What other kinds of silence are there?  There is, of course, the silence
of a man choking on anger or sadness, trying to swallow them because he
has no choice but to soldier on in his duty.  He is the High Priest after
all, he is responsible for opening the doors of the Sacred Place on behalf
of the people, and he has to go through the motions, even if the very
sight of this sacred place is the wellspring of an unspeakable pain; even
if he can no longer feel the glow of this Sacred Place like he used to, at
the very same time that he remains responsible for sweeping out its ashes
and its dung.

But if the God we talk about is any good at all, it should be a God that
can hear this man’s silence.  If this sacred place is really a place worth
being, it must be a place that knows how to call us home, even as we are
ready to burn the bridge that leads to it.

Vayidom Aharon-

And Aaron was silent.  And Aaron was stunned.  And Aaron was unmoved by
Moses’s attempt to justify his tragedy in words.  And Aaron was a zombie,
performing his duties joylessly, unable to understand this thing that he
served, but sure enough able to hate it.

 Vayidaber adonai el moshe acharei mot shnei b’nei aharon.Vayomer adonai
el moshe daber el aharon akhikha–“And God spoke to Moses after the death
of Aaron’s two sons, and God said to Moses, speak to your brother Aaron.

And tell him what?  Tell him that I know this is no longer a place he
wants to be; that his heart his hard, that he chokes that he can’t speak;
tell him that I have heard his silence and that I have thought of a way
for us to be reconciled.

v’lakakh et shnei  haseirim v’he’emad otam lifnei adonai petach ohel
mo’ed; v’natan aharon al shnei hse’irim goralot goral echad l’adonai
v’goral echad l’azazel.  “He should take two goats, and stand them before
me at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; and Aaron should cast lots over
the two goats, one lot for me, and one lot for Azazel.”

Aaron should come here and pledge himself to me-I want him to give me
what’s mine on my altar-and at the same time I want him to hurl his Azazel
at me, his obscenity.  I will allow my High Priest to commit this
blasphemy against me, because I have hurt him and I will never be able to
explain why to his satisfaction.  Only let him do it here.  Let me embrace
him as he curses my name.

 And this is what Aaron did.  He made one offer fittingly on the altar of
his god, and at the same time poured out all of his transgression on the
head of a living animal, which he let go to wander among the strange
spirits of the wilderness.  And then he waited in the sacred place, to
hear what song might begin to filter down through his silence.

ve-hayta zot lachem l’khukat olam-this will be a longstanding statute for
you; this will be yours to do every year, once a year, on this day of
mystery and reconciliation, this Yom Kippur.

G’mar Tov