Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Walk Article-Achrei Mot


Achrei Mot-5776

Rabbi David Walk

This is always embarrassing. Whenever my two beloved homelands get out of synch on the weekly Torah readings, I must choose which parsha to discuss in my weekly (some might say 'weakly') article, the one to be read in Israel or the one chanted in the United States. Emotionally I feel like I should go with Israel, because that feels like the default position. It is our national Homeland, and this problem only arose because of that extra day of Pesach that's added for those dwelling outside the Holyland. But the vast majority of my readers are still in the Diaspora. We are a nation that's about half at home and half on the road, sort of inside/outside. So, I'm going for that audience. This has happened before, but this time there's an added irony. I'm writing this on a Boeing 747 winging its way to Ben Gurion Airport, and I won't even get to hear Achrei Mot this year. In place of hearing that reading, I'll try to assuage my guilt by sharing a thought on this poignant parsha.

The name of the parsha means 'after the deaths', and refers to the unearthly executions of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon. Their souls were taken from their physical forms because of a sin committed during the dedication of the Mishkan or portable Temple. The exact nature of their sin is left unclear, therefore there are a plethora of opinions on the topic. Some say they were drunk, others that they ignored Moshe's instructions. More about that later. The true topic of the majority of this reading is the extremely impressive service performed in the Holy Temple on Yom Kippur. We have both Jewish and Gentile sources from the late Second Temple period describing that moving ceremony and the huge crowds it attracted. But I want to discuss the most unusual aspect of that service. The Cohen Gadol had two identical goats brought before him, and drew lots to determine which would be offered as a routine guilt offering on the altar and which would be sent to the wilderness and be thrown off a precipice to its death. This was the sair hamishtaleach, often translated as the 'scape goat.' One was designated as 'for God' and one was called for Azazael'. We must discuss what that means.

But first, why two goats? Many believe that these remind us of the two goats prepared by Rivka to be served for Yitzchak. This goat entree was used by Ya'akov to dispossess his brother Esav of their sainted father's blessing. Remember, Seir (or the hairy one) was another of Esav's many names. So, perhaps, one goat remains in the Temple precinct, as Ya'akov dwelt in the tent, and one went out into the wilds, as Esav roamed the great outdoors. But what of the name Azazael?

This is the topic of much debate. We know rabbis love to debate and argue. The most famous explanation (offered by Rashi) is that it was the name of the cliff from which he was flung. The most

controversial (hinted at by the Ibn Ezra and stated by the Ramban) is that it was a bribe to some demonic force which enticed the Jews. The only force we worship is God, but some acknowledge other nefarious forces in the world. I, personally, can't handle that approach. But there's a fascinating interpretation offered by Rabbeinu Bechaye (d. 1340), which opens up many interesting possibilities.

Rabbeinu Bechaye suggests that the name comes from the Hebrew word for powerful, because we must recognize that there are powerful dangers and adversaries out there in the world at large. These aren't demons or magically beings like in Harry Potter. Oh, no, theses fearsome enemies are our own yetzer hara or evil inclination. Our greatest nemesis is our own weakness. This is similar to when Pogo announced that we have met the enemy and it is us. This potent adversary is abroad in the world and is much more powerful when encountered on his turf, outside our homes and outside our holy precincts like the synagogue or Temple. We are symbolically destroying this danger, while acknowledging its power.

We have inside demands of holiness and strict rules, and we have outside demands, which require the more difficult test of facing the world on our terms. We go out to earn a living while striving to remain moral. It's not easy, and often requires much ingenuity and originality on our part. I think this brings us back to Nadav and Avihu. They brought an alien fire which had not been commanded by God into the Temple precinct. That can't be countenanced, because the inner sanctum has its own rules of order. We don't improvise on God's turf. This Torah reading is teaching this important lesson. Careful adherence to the letter of the law on the inside; improvisation and innovation on the outside.

Now we can look back at the famous ceremonies in the Temple on Yom Kippur. There is great detail concerning the procedures surrounding the goat which is offered upon the altar. Not so much about the goat to be unceremoniously thrown off the cliff. There are many laws and rules surrounding our sanctuary ritual. Out there in the world we're much more on our own. But the Rabbis were clear to tell us that when the yetzer hara, The Great Adversary, appears bring him into the study hall or shul, where we have more control.

So, it's important to discuss this Torah reading for those of us dwelling on the outside of Israel. For various reasons many of our brethren remain in the Diaspora, and that's not a sin, but it is a danger. This parsha helps make us aware of the pitfalls, and reminds us of the drastic measures which they sometimes demand when we're outside our turf. I'm sorry that I'm missing this reading, but I hope that I'm not missing its point.