Azazel: The Power of Evil
What is God?
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The Torah devotes an entire chapter (Leviticus 16) to the service on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). Among all the details one thing stands out in sheer strangeness. There are two goats that have to be offered as a kind of sacrifice. The High Priest puts lots on each goat, one to go to Hashem and the other to go to Azazel. The goat to Hashem is a typical offering, slaughtered according to the normal method, with it's blood sprinkled in a few places in the temple. But it's what happens to the other goat that is nothing short of bizarre, even by the standards of sacrificial offerings. The fact is, however, that it is never called an offering at all and it isn’t the least bit clear if it is indeed an offering. Nor is it clear to whom it is to be given, or if it actually given in any way. In fact, it isn’t at all clear what this whole thing is all about or how it fits in with anything in the Torah.
What exactly happens with this goat? The Torah states ‘The goat that has on it the lot to Azazel shall remain alive before Hashem to atone for him (the High Priest), to send it to Azazel in the wilderness’ (16:10). A little later ‘Aaron puts his two hands on the head of the live goat and confesses on it all the iniquities of the Israelites for all of their sins and places them on the head of the goat and sends it in the hand of an appointed man into the wilderness. And the goat shall bear all of their sins to a desolate land, and he shall send the goat into the wilderness’ (v.21-22). Other than the after effect that this man who takes the goat out to the wilderness must wash his clothes and his body, this is the last we hear of this mysterious goat in the entire Tanakh.
This one beats them all. Whatever issues we might have with the rest of the offerings are nothing compared to the issues of this goat. What the heck is this ‘Azazel’ thing? How are all the sins of the Israelites supposed to be loaded on this poor goat? And what does it do with them once it gets out in the wilderness? Does it eat them, or dump them off somewhere? What happens to the goat in the end? This entire section is basically one big question mark.
For starters we have to find some way of translating this word ‘Azazel’. We have a few choices here, none of which is particularly convincing. It happens that there is no official translation of this word. Many Bibles, including most Jewish versions, don’t even attempt to translate the word, being as there is no clear translation. Onkelos, the official Aramaic translation, leaves the word untranslated all four times it comes up in the text. The Septuagint renders it into Greek as a word that has been translated into English as ‘scapegoat’. This word, which has a curious history in and of itself, means something like ‘the goat that is led off’.
This goat must do exactly what the Torah says it does, carry the sins out to the wilderness and somehow get rid of them. As strange as this seems, it gets even weirder. The use of the word in the Torah doesn’t quite match with the Septuagint translation. It appears that the word Azazel is not a description of the goat, but an explanation of where the goat is going. This could mean a place named Azazel, or it could mean the name of the thing that the goat is going to. If you are wondering what that ‘thing’ could be, you are not alone. Everybody who has read this in the original Hebrew has wondered the same thing. What is Azazel? Or better yet, who is Azazel?
It turns out that among rabbinic commentaries, the word has been explained as both a place and a thing. We’re going to focus on the ‘thing’ approach. The word Azazel means ‘Hell’ in modern Hebrew. ‘Go to hell’ is aptly translated in Hebrew as ‘Lech l’Azazel’. Is this what it means? ‘Hell’ is both a place and a ‘thing’ of sorts. Is this goat taking all those sins to hell? Modern Hebrew is not necessarily an accurate reflection of what the Torah means, despite what Israelis may think. A midrashic explanation calls this goat a ‘gift to Samael’. This name, which is understood as a force of evil, is shunned in many traditional Jewish circles – they won’t even say it aloud. It means ‘He who blinds (out) God’, or the devil. The medieval Torah commentator, Ramban, explains that this gift is not an offering at all. It is a bribe. Somehow this gift is supposed to convince this nasty character that these people have indeed gotten rid of their sins and they are clean for the year.
So there we have it. It’s either hell or a scapegoat or some desolate place or a bribe to Samael. At the very best it involves taking all the sins and dumping them off somewhere. At the other end we have a tacit acknowledgment of ‘powers of impurity’, ‘the Satan’, the dark side’, or whatever one chooses to call it. The fact is that one does not have to search too hard in Judaism to find this sort of thing. It’s all over the place in the Talmud, the Midrash, the medieval mystics, and the Hasidim. The only group that consistently pooh-poohed it was the philosophers, and even they had their lapses.
What is this dark side? It is everything that is spiritually impure, unholy, profane, and non-godly. That’s a pretty big garbage can of things. It is the evil side of life which is, unfortunately, a good deal of life, regardless of our reluctance to admit it. But this is not our concern at the moment. We want to know how this reflects on God. What image of God comes to light from this dark side?
There are two goats that the High Priest must handle. A lottery decides which one goes where. Even the High Priest cannot make this decision. It is left, so to speak, to fate. The goat to Hashem is a classic offering – atonement for the Israelites in their constant battle against the force of evil. Evil is a genuine component of reality. It is undeniable and ubiquitous. It is every bit as real as goodness, perhaps even a good deal more palpable and familiar. We have very little understanding of what evil really is.
The Biblical view of evil is a mixed bag. There was definitely a component of an ‘outside force’ like the snake that poisoned its victims with an anti-god attitude. There was also a God-created side of evil. A verse in Isaiah states explicitly, ‘Former of light and Creator of darkness, Maker of peace and Creator of evil - I am Hashem the Maker of all this’ (45:7). In the end, both are true. Hashem created the outside force and let it wreak havoc. It is part of the world we live in, as much as death and hunger are part of the world. This evil component should not and cannot be minimized as if it were a divine oversight in reality. It is essential to the spiritual make up of the universe and it must be addressed on its own terms.
This is where the goats come in. The goats are equal. Each one could go either way. Only fate decides between them. Evil can hit anyone anytime. Nobody is immune to its clutches. In many ways, fortune plays just as pivotal a role in whether a given person or a group is driven by evil, as individual or collective spiritual fortitude. The Torah recognizes this role of fate in the battle. But even with that, one goat goes to Hashem as an offering of atonement. Hashem’s role in our struggle has to be acknowledged and revered. The other side, the side of evil, also has to be recognized. Sins are the result of evil. They must be disposed of. This is not a mere symbolic disposal. This is the real thing. Those sins are carried out on the back of a goat. The goat does not take the blame for the sins, like a classic scapegoat. It only helps remove them to some other location. It takes them out to the middle of nowhere where they can rot or grow or hibernate. Whether they come back to us is up to some combination of fate and our own choices.
Where is God in all this? God waits back in the sanctity of the temple, silently accepting His own offering while tolerating and even commanding the parallel ‘gift’ to the force of evil, God’s own creation. God realizes the magnitude of this creation, the gravity and the uncontainable power that it must have. It is a cosmic Pandora’s Box that infects everything it comes into contact with. It plays with the mind and the soul; it tempts and it taunts and it embitters. There is simply no way to truly deal with it other than recognizing its power and staying away from it as much as possible. Even God, its Creator, gives it space.
What comes out of all this is a dual image. First there is Hashem, commanding an atonement procedure once a year with very exact instructions, including an acknowledgment of the force of evil that dwells everywhere and infects everything, but can be controlled. This force of evil is the second image. It is powerful, ubiquitous, unrelenting. It is almost a god in and of itself. But not quite. The Torah never crosses that line and calls it the ‘g’ word. Evil is another creation of God, perhaps an unholy creation, but just a creation nevertheless. It is our task to reject that creation, to refuse to partake of that image, and to cast it away in the wilderness.
Perceiving the Image
How we perceive evil shapes our entire outlook on life. If we see it as nothing more than a natural outcome of evolutionary forces that are themselves nothing more than the outcome of physical forces, than it is really not qualitatively different from good. It is either a neutral motivator that we work with or a neutral inconvenience that we accommodate or fight. It makes no ultimate difference either way because it is of no lasting spiritual significance. If we see it as the ‘devil’ – the anti-god deity that unleashes the powers of the ‘dark side’ against its unwitting and helpless victims, we will probably need to use the faith of religion to fend off its challenges. The dreaded fires of hell and the bliss of heaven may or may not be enough to win the eternal battle.
If however, we see evil as a creation of God, as a necessary force in the great plan of Destiny, everything changes. It is there, a reality as real as the food we eat and the air we breathe, and it is part of us and part of the creation. It is a reflection of God in its own way, while simultaneously being a rejection of God. Evil, when looked at in this way, may be seen as an essential partner in life, a constant heckler who must always be carried around and given his due. It must be recognized as an element of human challenge, obscuring the glory of God as it forces us to look harder to find that glory. God may or may not dwell within evil, depending on one’s spiritual perspective, but God did create it and God needs it to do the dirty work of keeping the creation process going. We create by fighting off the power of evil, by casting it off into the wilderness and grasping whatever holiness remains. We cannot live with such a power, but we cannot live without it either.
There are three outlooks for dealing with evil: treating it as a natural force of no spiritual consequence, treating it as the devil that must be shunned and hated or worshiped and adored, or seeing it as a necessary creation of God. Which one is correct?
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