‘Escape goat’ shows us path to redemption

Rabbi Jonah Zinn

By Rabbi Jonah Zinn

The taste of matzah was still fresh on our lips as we began the  study of Acharei Mot this year. This gastronomic phenomenon was particularly pronounced for those who read Acharei Mot last Shabbat because they observe seven days of Passover, including Reform Jews and the Israeli Jewish community. 

Our parashah begins with two goats. One was chosen at random to be offered to God as a sin offering. The other had the sins of the people transferred onto it and was then sent into the wilderness to a place called Azazel. The Torah describes how each year on Yom Kippur, the high priest put his hands on the head of the goat and confessed over it all of the people’s transgressions, through which the sins of the people were transferred to the goat. The goat was then led away, carrying all the iniquities of the people, to a mysterious place known as Azazel.

Commentators have long pondered the meaning of this perplexing location, which is mentioned nowhere else in the Torah. Rashi understood Azazel as a physical description of the place the goat was led. Rashi, reflecting explanations found early in the Talmud, asserts that this refers to “a steep, rocky or hard place.” 

Other commentators suggest a very different explanation. Abraham ibn Ezra cryptically asserts that Azazel was the name of a spirit or goat-demon. This would seem to suggest the influence of pagan rituals on the Israelite tradition. This may be a sign of acculturation of pagan rituals or, conversely, it may be understood as a polemic again such practices. 

Finally, the great 16th century biblical translator William Tyndale offers what is perhaps the simplest interpretation. He believed Azazel is a compound noun meaning “the goat that was sent away” and so, seeking a succinct way to translate Azazel into English, he called it “the escapegoat.” In time this goat is known more simply as the “scapegoat.” 

Yet this helpful transition continues to confound us with many questions about what exactly was escaping. Perhaps the escape refers to how the goat fled from the community into the wilderness, or perhaps it references how the ritual enabled the people to escape from their sins that were transferred onto the goat. We may never know the answer.

Yet the connection between this Yom Kippur ritual and Passover is more than a simple coincidence in the lectionary calendar. Passover recalls our peoples’ redemption. One of the names of Passover is z’man heyruteinu, the season of our freedom, which reminds us of how this period commemorates our liberation from slavery in Egypt. 

However, Passover speaks not only to our collective physical redemption from slavery but also to our collective spiritual redemption as well. The exodus helped rid our ancestors of the mindset of slavery and enabled them to open their minds and hearts to a new way of living. It was through this spiritual redemption, perhaps more than their physical freedom, that the Israelites discovered that which enabled them to become a free people capable of receiving Torah.

Similarly, the scapegoat ritual also speaks of redemptions. It serves as a powerful reminder that we are not bound by past misdeeds and missteps. We, too, have the potential to escape the hurt we have caused and poor choices we have made. Rather than allowing these mistakes to keep us in bondage, the scapegoat ritual reminds us of the need to take steps to rectify the pain we have caused and to let go of that which we cannot control. It pushes us to reflect on how we can free ourselves from aspects of our past we wish to move beyond. 

By urging us to find our freedom, the scapegoat helps to illuminate a path of personal renewal and redemption.

Rabbi Jonah Zinn serves Congregation Shaare Emeth and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association.