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