Dvar Torah – Acharei Mot – last Shabbat gathering of the year

The following dvar torah was presented at the final Shabbat service of the academic year at Haverford College.


This week’s parsha, Acharei Mot, is also the Torah reading for Yom Kippur. This makes sense, as the first chapter of the parsha describes the ritual as performed by Aaron on Yom Kippur. Aaron brings two goats to the entrance of the Mishkan–the place where God’s presence dwelt among the people–and casts lots. One of the goats serves as a sin offering, and is sacrificed on the altar. The second goat is sent out of the community–to Azazel–to make atonement for the sins of the community.

Who is Azazel? That depends who you ask. The King James Version of the Bible translated “a goat for Azazel” as “a goat that escapes,” or “scapegoat.” According to the book of Enoch, an early apocryphal work, Azazel was among a group of angels who were demoted for fraternizing with humans. Azazel’s sin was teaching humanity how to manipulate metal, which they used to make weapons. Other traditions present him as a demon of the desert, with a goat-like appearance.

This can seem pretty scary, especially if you’ve ever seen the cover art of a heavy metal album. A magical horned desert demon who’s crafty with metal? That poor goat doesn’t stand a chance! Cast out into the wilderness–to an unknown fate, away from all of the comforts of the society.

And yet…the fate of the goat for Azazel must be considered in relation to the fate of the goat for Hashem. We know that the goat for Hashem will be slaughtered as a sin-offering. That goat doesn’t stand a chance. Given the odds, would you rather face certain death or the possibility of facing a desert demon?

As you can imagine, the rationalist thinking rabbis of the middle ages were quite uncomfortable talking about a mystical desert demon. Rashi suggests that the word azazel should be divided into two words azaz and el, meaning “to be strong” and “mighty.” And the Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, suggests that being ”sent” to Azazel actually means to send the goat out alive to find a place to graze, among its own kind.

This is our last Shabbat with our seniors. Next Saturday, we will send them out into an unknown world–a scary prospect. And yet, we have confidence that we are sending them off to a future full of potential. Additionally, graduation falls during the counting of the Omer, the observing of the 50 days between the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. It is a time of great anticipation–anxious about what’s in the future, but knowing that we are approaching something monumental.

Seniors, here is our tradition’s counsel. Don’t let your worst fears about the future keep you from pursuing your dreams. Know that, like Rashi suggests, by being “strong and mighty,” you will achieve great things. Have confidence that, like the Rashbam suggests, you will go out to a place where you will find sustenance and new communities of support.

Shabbat shalom!


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