Parshat Acharei Mot

Torah Reading for Week of April 28-May 4, 2019
“But What of Azazel?”
By Rabbi Corinne Copnick, ’15

The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.

Aaron shall take the two he-goats and let them stand before the Lord at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the Lord, and the other marked for Azazel” (Leviticus 16:7-8) [1].

Acharei Mot, the title of the parsha, means “after the death,” referring not to the pair of he-goats, but to “the two sons of Aaron who died when they were too close to the presence of the Lord” (JPS Translation). Only one of the goats, however, will be sacrificed. The second, marked for Azazel, is to carry all the sins of the Israelites into the wilderness. Like casting our bread crumbs into natural waters at Rosh Hashana, sending Azazel into the wilderness is also reminiscent of the banishment of Cain and of Hagar and Ishmael as well. Cain eventually found respite in Edom, where he and his descendants prospered. Hagar and Ishmael were comforted that God would make of the Israelites two great nations.

But what of Azazel, who symbolically carried all our sins away? Did he find respite on the mountain that some think was near Mount Sinai? Different rabbis of old have different explanations. Here is the one favored by medieval scholar Ibn Ezra: “According to Saadia [Gaon],” he writes, Azazel is “the name of a mountain, so called because it was precipitous” [2]. Possibly the goat driven into the wilderness would eventually stumble on the rocky cliffs and fall to its death, but it would not be slaughtered as a sacrifice.

Other commentators explain that Azazel is a compound word (more common in Aramaic than in Hebrew). Thus “as azel” means “the goat went” [3]. Rashi, however, translates Azazel as meaning “to the goats”; in other words, the biblical goat was released alive into the wilderness, presumably to dwell among the other wild goats. I am comforted by Rashi’s explanation. But he dismisses the el at the end of the word as a grammatical suffix.

My astrological sign is “the goat,” a designation with which I was never entirely comfortable. So I have a personal interest in Azazel. When I visited Scottsdale, Arizona for the first time, it was evident that a single, dry, brown mountain dominated the landscape. It was huge. Then, as my stay grew longer, I began to discern moving shapes blending into the rocky mountain: animals, living beings of different kinds. And the most agile among them were mountain goats. One of them stood high on a cliff, looking out beyond the mountain, protecting the flock below.To me, it signified that the biblical Azazel was cast by lot to be a survivor, a goat that could withstand the barren wilderness and create a family there. Perhaps, in overcoming the sins with which it had been burdened as a form of sacrifice, Azazel had also endured.

Mountain goats in their whiteness
clamber up the stony cliffs,
scale rocky heights,
melt age-old snowcaps
with priestly vision.

Flock protected beneath his
fortress, a monarch stands
alone atop the tajo.
Azazel. [5]

[1] Acharei Mot, JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication society, 1999) 244.
[2] Ibn Ezra. Quoted in Michael Carasik, The Commentator’s Bible: Leviticus (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2009), 120.
[3] Carasik, 120.
[4] Ibid., 121.
[5] ©Corinne Copnick, Montreal, Quebec, 1982. All rights reserved. Poem first published in the 10th Anniversary issue of “Voices Israel,” Haifa, Israel, 1982.