Scholars can debate whether Azazel was a place, some variety of ancient demon, or simply a word meaning “for complete removal”; the rest of us can all agree that whatever it is — it’s bad. Indeed, the expression in modern Hebrew meaning “Go to Hell” (Lech L’Azazel) derives from this week’s Torah portion. Aaron, the high priest, would lay his hands on two goats, symbolically passing the sins of their community onto their heads. One of these scapegoats would be offered as a sacrifice to God, the other sent into the wilderness (or over a cliff) for Azazel.
While this ancient ritual feels barbaric and crude in the modern day, I am grateful for the underlying message it provides. We are more than our mistakes. Atonement is possible. Ritual, whether sacrificing a goat or casting breadcrumbs from our pocket upon the water in an equally symbolic gesture, offers us the religious space to do the difficult internal work of making better choices.
Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer