"In Emperor Julian's mind the myths that shock the vulgar are noble allegories to the wise and reverent. Purge religion from dross if you like; but remember that you do so at your peril. One false step, one self-confident rejection of a thing which is merely too high for you to grasp, and you are darkening the Sun, casting God out of the world.” - Five Stages of Greek Religion, Gilbert Murray
The quotation could apply to nearly any aspect of religious life and certainly to many things in Judaism. The idea that during Sukkot would be a bad time to bring a friend to synagogue, it being hard to explain the meaning behind a bunch of people wrapped in leather straps and capes, holding leaves and a lemon, marching in a circle and mumbling, is just one example.
The lesson of Murray’s analysis of the Apostate’s thinking is of course that there is value in a ritual like hakkafot. And that carelessly dispensing with anything in religion because it might seem absurd is a great sin. We don’t complain about our food for not being magnetic, and we shouldn’t complain about religious practices for being illogical.
In our parshah, the example on which I’d like to focus is that of the scapegoat, the goral echad l’Azazel. The High Priest conducts a ritual with two goats. One to be offered to God and the other sent to Azazel. This goat would carry with it the sins of all the people freeing them in a tangible and dramatic way and finalizing their efforts to atone.
It's weird, there are no two ways about it. Hertz in his commentary derides those who would say Azazel is a demon, noting that in the next chapter we are commanded, v’lo yizb’chu od et zivcheihem l’si’irim, as Hertz translates, “no more sacrifice their sacrifices to satyrs.” He quotes Gesenius in saying Azazel can only mean “dismissal.”
Even with all that, Hertz doesn’t make it any less weird. Okay, so it’s not an appeal to a demon, it’s still kind of crazy.
That, though, is the point. Our ancestors took sin seriously. It was a real thing. It was a palpable thing. No doubt some were themselves led astray by believing the ritual alone, and no change in behavior, would suffice to make atonement. But for many, it must have been a great relief to know that in addition to their sacrifices and their fasting and all other efforts to atone, that their sins had been carried away to not tempt them again, had to have provided a strong sense that life could start anew, that a new path could be taken to quite literally, go forward.
Would that we took sin so seriously. For us, I think the ritual is as preposterous because it requires us to “believe” in sin as much as it requires us to accept Azazel as whatever person, place or thing it might be.
We just don’t believe in sin. And not just sin. We don’t want to have anything to do with sin, suffering, sickness, catastrophe, evil, any of it.
And when you seek to live life avoiding all those things, what does it do for you? Nothing good. Just to focus on one example, the pandemic. As if the dangers of illness, hospitalization, and death, weren’t bad enough, at least with those there was some idea of how we might help people. But the greater host of dangers – of isolation, of meaninglessness, of sorrow, depression, and anxiety, those our society is woefully ill-equipped to address. People just don’t know what the remedy is for those sorts of things. They don’t know because even on a “good day” people don’t understand. If a thing doesn’t have a financial value that can be measured, or it isn’t a medical condition that can be seen and touched, people lack even a vocabulary for describing such things. They’ve forgotten the value of community, of not just the one or two good friends, but a larger network of people who care about each other. They don’t know about having a purpose in life beyond finding pleasure and fulfilling one’s basic needs. And despite how widespread such things are, mental and emotional conditions all too often are enigmas society would rather hide away than meet with love and a desire to understand.
That is because the ineffable, the poetic, the spiritual, even the absurd, these things lack in all value. And hence the parts of human life they are precisely meant to address become terrible problems. How do you deal with sin and guilt? You have to change, atone, forgive… and you have to put your sins on a goat.
You have to have stories and songs and dances and foods and clothes that bind you to others and that in sharing with them you find meaning and purpose. You can express joy and process pain – because there are huge parts of being human that are ridiculous, are absurd.
So, tie on the red string and head into the wilderness. Leave the metal with its imperfections. Shake the palm branch in all directions. Let the Sun’s light shine forth and even burn. We need all that. Being alive requires it. And if you have it, if you find it here and in other parts of your life, cherish and nurture it so others may find the same blessings, too.