Aharei Mot: When a Scapegoat is Not Enough

By Michael Carasik
Wednesday, April 13, 2011

This week's portion describes one of the most curious rituals found anywhere in the Bible, that of the "scapegoat."  It would seem to be a reparative procedure, since the Lord commands it to Moses "after the death of Aaron's two sons": that is, Nadav and Avihu, who (as we learned earlier and are reminded here) were killed after bringing "strange fire" to the altar. The procedure involves sacrificing a bull as a sin-offering, a standard ritual in cases when either the High Priest or the community as a whole has sinned. 

But this time the sin-offering is accompanied by two goats, and only one of these is meant as an offering to the Lord. Aaron's instructions are as follows: 

He shall take the two goats and set them before the Lord at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.  Then Aaron shall set lots on the two goats—one lot "for the Lord," and one lot "for Azazel."  Aaron shall present as a sin-offering the goat on which the lot "for the Lord" came up, but the goat on which the lot "for Azazel" came up shall be set before the Lord alive, to make expiation upon it, so it can be turned loose into the desert, for Azazel.

The first English translation of the Bible, by the 16th-century scholar William Tyndale, interpreted the Hebrew word azazel not as a name but as a compound word meaning "the goat goes off."  Tyndale therefore created the word "scapegoat," that is, the "escape-goat," the goat that is released into the uninhabitable desert "bearing off all their iniquities" (16:22).

As you can imagine, this ritual has been a focus of intense study on the part of exegetes, theologians, philologists, anthropologists, and historians down through the centuries.  But there is something still more curious about this ritual: though it is elaborate and arcane, it doesn't work.

Or at least it doesn't suffice. That would seem to be the conclusion we must draw from the continuation of the chapter, where verses 29-30 tell us:

This shall be a permanent law for you:  In the seventh month, on the tenth of the month, you shall afflict yourselves.  You must do no work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you.  For on this day expiation is made for you, to cleanse you of all your sins.  You shall be clean before the Lord.

The tenth day of the seventh month, Tishrei, is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  But why the need for this yearly ritual of expiation if the Israelites' sins have already been successfully removed by loading them onto the goat and shipping them out to parts unknown?

In the ritual metaphysics of sin and its removal, perhaps they have been.  Figuratively removing sin from the locale continues to be part of Jewish observance; on Rosh Hashanah, New Year's Day, Jews throw bread into the water in the ceremony known as tashlikh, "you shall cast," from the verse, "You shall cast all their sins into the depths of the sea" (Micah 7:19).  Like the scapegoat ritual, this serves (if only symbolically) to carry sin away from the sinner and into the void.  The solemn ritual of animal sacrifice—meant, as some of the traditional commentators explain, to shift the punishment the sinner himself deserves to an animal—must have worked similarly.  But neither ritual is enough to complete the job.

A scapegoat, as we use the word today, is someone who takes the fall for the person who is really responsible for the crime.  But when what you want is not to shift the blame but genuinely to cleanse yourself of your misdeed, neither a scapegoat nor any other kind of vicarious punishment, even in the form of animal sacrifice, is sufficient.  You must afflict yourself—not because God desires such affliction, but because you might not feel truly cleansed unless you, too, feel some of God's distress at the existence of sin.

What killed Nadav and Avihu, after all, was not that they did the wrong thing but that they overdid the right thing.  They found the inauguration of the sacrificial ritual so exhilarating that they were not willing to let it be over so soon.  After their death, however—so this week's portion tells us—God understood that treating the removal of sin as a kind of infection control was not enough.  The Israelites needed not only to know that their sins were removed, but to feel it.  That is why the scapegoat alone was not enough.

Michael Carasik is the creator of The Commentators' Bible and of the Torah Talk podcast. He teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.


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