The Discipline of Atonement

| Yom Kippur By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Sep 11, 2013 / 5774 | Holidays

This coming Shabbat culminates the period of aseret yamei teshuvah, the ten days of repentance, as we commemorate Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is the Sabbath of Sabbaths in which we seek to successfully complete our journey toward making amends and recall the ritual of purification that unfolded in biblical times. This particular ritual is detailed during the Musaf service of Yom Kippur. We read that the high priest would set aside his elegant garments and don the garb of a regular priest as he entered the Holy of Holies. There he would atone for his own sins, the transgressions of his family, and the sins of all of Israel. Subsequently, two goats were selected—one for God and the other designated for “Azazel.” While the former goat would be offered as a sacrifice, the latter animal would be led into the desert wilderness to this mysterious place. How can we better understand this intriguing ritual of the scapegoat?

Nahmanides (13th-century Spanish commentator Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman, or Ramban) sheds light on the significance of the goat and of Azazel. Regarding the latter, Ramban surveys the beliefs of other commentators:

This was a high mountain—a flinty precipitous peak, as it is said, “a land which is cut off” (Lev 16:22). This is the language of Rashi. Others say this means the “hardest” place in the mountains . . . Accordingly, the meaning of the word la’azazel is to a hard place [the root of the word azazel being az—strong], with the letter zayin doubled just like izuz (strong) and mighty (Psalms 24:8). [Chavel, Ramban: Commentary on Torah, 217]

Nahmanides, however, remains unconvinced, rejecting these interpretations. He argues rather that the goat and Azazel must be understood within a context of idolatrous Near Eastern cultures. The se’ir (goat) sent to Azazel is meant to recall a goat-like spirit that represented desolation and destruction. The Israelite nation, then, seeks to reframe this previously idolatrous practice, symbolizing both a break from pagan practice and a break with its wayward past. Expelling sins to a place of desolation diminishes and removes the power of transgression from the People’s presence.

While today we may lament the fate of the innocent scapegoat, the power and significance of this ritual resonates with us. All too often, sin as represented by habitual, harmful behavior (idolatry of another sort) takes hold of us. A downward spiral ensues as we find ourselves embroiled in chaos and desolation. The challenge for each of us is to reclaim a path of discipline in our individual and communal lives. To do so, such destructive habits need to be exiled. The very controlled and complex ritual of confession and expulsion as represented by the scapegoat becomes a powerful model for atonement. Discipline expels disorder and chaos. We journey a step further from the chaos of the wilderness as we endeavor to bring the Promised Land within reach. Ken yehi ratzon. So it may it be for all of us in this High Holiday season.


The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.