This week’s double Torah portion, Achrei Mot/Kedoshim, sends a goat straight to hell in a curious ritual of expiation. Or, at least the closest approximation of hell that exists in Jewish tradition (and modern Hebrew, where the curse “Lech L’Azazel” mean what you think it does). After symbolically transferring the sins of the community, “Aaron shall take two goats and let them stand before Adonai at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for Adonai and the other marked for Azazel. Aaron shall bring forward the goat designated by lot for Adonai, which he is to offer as a sin offering; while the goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be left standing alive before Adonai, to make expiation with it and to send it off to the wilderness for Azazel.”
Whether Azazel is a place, filled as it would be with sin-imbued goats, or a goat-eating-Demon (as cultural anthropologists would suggest), it does indeed sound like the opposite of heaven — especially for those of us with allergies. It is also, perhaps, the easiest origins of the term scapegoat. This was how our ancestors marked Yom Kippur when the ancient temples stood. Our prayers for forgiveness today take a more humane form, at least from the perspective of the goat!
– Rabbi Aaron Meyer