By Rabbi David Lister, Edgware United Synagogue
“I thus drew steadily nearer to the truth, by whose discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two” (Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde).
One of the most dramatic elements of the Yom Kippur service in Temple times was the ceremony of the scapegoat. The High Priest would designate one goat for God and another for Azazel. The goat for God would be slaughtered and its blood would be sprinkled towards the Holy of Holies. The goat for Azazel was then taken out to the top of a high desert mountain, whence it would be pushed to its death.
The Torah tells us that the scapegoat carried the people’s sins off into the desert (Vayikra 16:22). So who or what was Azazel and how could sending a goat to its death make everything better? The Ramban (Nachmanides 1194-1270) explains this cryptic ritual with reference to the twin sons of Yitzchak: Eisav the bloodthirsty hunter and Yaakov, who is referred to in the Torah as an “ish tam”, meaning an ‘innocent man’ (Bereishit 25:27).
Yaakov said of Eisav, “Surely my brother is an ish sa’ir” (ibid. 27:11). The simple meaning of the words “ish sa’ir” is ‘a hairy man’. Yet they can also be translated as ‘a man like a goat’. The goat for Azazel, says the Ramban, symbolises Eisav.
There is also a hint to Yaakov in this Yom Kippur ritual. The goat for Azazel had to carry off “all their sins” (Vayikra 16:22). The Hebrew term used is “avonotam”, which can be translated to mean ‘the sins of [Yaakov] the innocent’. Thus, says the Ramban, the goat for Azazel symbolised Eisav carrying off Yaakov’s sins. How could this be?
Perhaps the point is that on Yom Kippur we receive the gift of spiritual clarity. We see that our self-indulgence, our lust for power and our unruly neglect of God’s will are just ‘the Eisav within us’. Robert Louis Stevenson was partially correct that “man is truly two”: we have Eisav within us all. But we can cast Eisav out, and we can cast out all our sins through this resolve to repent and start a new life.
The Ramban explains further that Eisav’s blood lust is symbolised by the desolation of the desert, because the greed and violence of Eisav wreak desolation on civilisation. Azazel means the ‘hard, strong place’, because the world of Eisav admits no kindness and no reconciliation. The goat’s shocking and sudden destruction in the desert teaches that Eisav and all he represents will not triumph.
Nowadays we have no Temple and no goat for Azazel. But the Azazel lesson endures for all time, and the freedom to cleanse ourselves of our inner Eisav and face down the ruin of our own sin is something everyone can access every year for twenty five blessed hours, the holy and mighty day of Yom Kippur.