Aharey Mot 5762

Posted on March 23, 2011

by Adam Balachin

A look into the Parsha will let you see that Jews in the desert threw goats off of cliffs. Now you’re probably all snickering, and saying, “What’s this guy talking about? That’s too messy to be real!” Well here it is, USYers, straight from Vayikra ch. 16 vs. 7-10: Basically, Aaron is told to bring two male goats to the “Petach Ohel Moed,” or to the entrance of Tent of Meeting. Here he is to place lots on the two goats, “Goral echad lashem, v’goral echad l’azazel,” or one lot marked for Hashem and the other marked for Azazel. Aaron is to offer the goat designated for Hashem as a purification offering, while the poor other goat is led “l’azazel hamidbarah,” which can be translated as “to the wilderness for Azazel,” or in later interpretations, the goat was thrown off a cliff.

So this gooey mess is left for azazel, a demon. I don’t know about you, but I’m curious to know why this goat is thrown off a cliff for a demon. A midrash teaches that the goat is meant as a bribe to Azazel so that he will not testify to God against Israel, and used as a distraction so that Azazel will be kept away from his evil work.

But if we can’t accept this idea of a demon, than how can we understand this strange game of goat-shotput? If taken symbolically, the goat led off in the direction of the wilderness can represent “yetzer harah,” or our evil inclination.

I once learned from my rabbi that to be made in the “zelem elohim,” or in the image of God, is to have two basic parts. One part is the animal nature of the human being. It is the part that craves for physical pleasures. This is the part of us that can easily be lead away by lust or appetite. And by tossing a goat off of a cliff, these evil inclinations are in a way, thrown away.

This practice of the airborne goat is similar to the custom called tashlich, where Jews throw breadcrumbs into a river so that the hungry fish will eat our sins.It is the idea that words alone will not take away our inclination to do wrong. We feel that we must physically expell something from our possession.

So what about the other part of us, that is not always worrying about our evil inclination?

Hirsch interprets the case of the two goats as follows: “We can follow our sensual instincts into the wilderness, leading to self destruction, or we can sacrifice our instinctsto the service of God.” The part of humans that differentiates us from other animals is our ability to choose to do good in this world. It is the ability we have to focus on the goat designated for God, and bring God into this world through our t’shuvah and prayer.

We are confronted with many opportunities in our lives today. We have the opportunity to keep Shabbat, to keep Kashrut, to daven, to volunteer, to study Torah, the possibilities are endless. It really is a true test for all of us to see which goat we will end up following.

A little later in the parsha, ch. 18, vs. 5, the Children of Israel are given reason to keep God’s laws: “Ushmartem et chukotai v’et mishpatai asher ya’aseh otam ha’adam vachai bahem ani Hashem.” “You shall keep my laws and my rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live. I am the Lord.” What does it mean, “by the persuit of which man shall live?” Maimonides comments that it means that if one chooses to disregard the laws that are given to him or her, they are considered as dead. They do not seem to realize what it means to be truly alive.

So here we have it. Two distinct paths: One to a life as a Jew living in God’s world and one watching goats fall off of cliffs. Let’s take this opportunity to follow the right goat.