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A Yom Kippur Sermon

When the first and second Temples still stood in Jerusalem, Yom Kippur looked significantly different than it does today. The ancient version of the Day of Atonement is described in minute detail within the pages of the Mishnah and Talmud. From these sources, we know that while the high priest would have done quite a bit of work in order to prepare for the holy day, it wasn’t until the sun set on Erev Yom Kippur, that the rituals would begin in earnest. The high priest spent the evening of the sabbath of sabbaths awake. He began fasting before nightfall because it was thought that a full belly would make him less likely to fulfil this duties and more likely to fall asleep.

The Talmud explains that if the high priest was a scholar, he would spend the night hours teaching his fellows, but if he was, let’s say, less of a scholar, the high priest would spend this sacred time listening to other men teach about biblical texts. My favorite detail from the Talmudic account of Erev Yom Kippur is the description of the young priests snapping their fingers at the high priest if they saw him dozing off. If the snapping didn’t work, and he continued to fall asleep, the young priests were charged with helping him up and then suggesting that a stroll around the temple court might revive him.

Once the sun had risen in the morning, the high priest would begin the highly symbolic and very complicated choreography of the day which included multiple immersions in ritual baths, a change of clothes after each dip, and, of course, the offering of the impressive number of sacrifices in order to atone for the Israelites’ sins.

Here is an abridged description of one of the sacrifices that the high priest was required to make on the Day of Atonement. (Mishnah Yoma 6) The details of this account come to us from the rabbis of the Mishnah which was compiled in the 3rd century of the Common Era.

“[The high priest] goes… to the eastern side of the Temple Court, to the north of the altar... [Waiting for him are] two he-goats… and an urn containing two lots....The high priest shakes the urn and brings up the two lots. On one is inscribed, ‘For [Adonai],’ and on the other, ‘For Azazel.” (The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah, pg 179)

After using the lots to determine which of the goats would be dedicated to Adonai and which would be sent to Azazel, “[The high priest] would [walk] to the goat for Azazel and place his two hands on it, and confess. And this is what he would say: ‘Please God, we, Your people [of] the House of Israel, have committed wrongdoing, transgressed, and sinned before You. Please God, please forgive the wrongdoing, transgressions and sins that we, Your people... have committed, transgressed, and sinned before You. As it is written in the Torah of Moses Your servant (Leviticus 16:30), 'On this day, you will be forgiven and cleansed from all your sins—before [Adonai] you will be cleansed.’

Then, [when] the priests and the people standing in the courtyard...heard... [God’s] Name from the mouth of the high priest, [they] would bend their knees, bow down and fall on their faces, and they would say, ‘Blessed be the Honored Name of [God’s] Sovereignty forever.’

[Once the high priest had confessed the Israelites’ sins onto the head of the goat for Azazel, he] turned [it] over to the person [charged with] leading it [out to the wilderness].

[The people] made a special ramp for [the man] [who led the goat out], because of the Babylonians ... [who] used to pull at his hair, and say to him, Take [our sins] and go quickly, take [our sins] and go quickly. ...There were ten booths [on the path leading] from Jerusalem to Tzuk [the cliff that was their destination.]

What did [the one escorting the goat] do [when he passed the last booth and reached the cliff]? He… pushed [the goat] from behind. It went rolling down, and before it reached halfway downhill, it was dashed to pieces. [The man then] returned and sat in the last [of the 10 booths] until it became dark....” (Mishnah Yoma 6:2-6)

Later on the Day of Atonement, one of the priests who had accompanied the man and the goat out of the temple court would return, interrupt the other sacrifices, and tell the high priest that the goat meant for Azazel had reached the wilderness. Once the high priest had heard this report, he would know that the sins he had transferred onto the Azazel goat had been forgiven. (Mishnah Yoma 6:9)

At this point, I’m sure that you have many questions, not the least of which is “Who is Azazel.” So let’s start there. The truth of the matter is that no one really knows what or who Azazel was. In fact, rabbis and scholars have spent the better part of two thousand years arguing about it.

Some suggest that Azazel was the name of the rocky mountainside cliff that the goat was thrown from while others argue that the Hebrew should be read as “ez ozel” (the goat that escapes) and that it was simply a designation for the animal who was released into the wilderness instead of the Adonai goat who was sacrificed in the Temple. Interestingly, there are those who argue that Azazel was the name of a goat-demon that lived in the wilderness and that this ritual is all about taking a sacrifice from Adonai’s domain to the domain of the demon, Azazel. If you’re a fan of the X-Men, you might recognize the name Azazel since the comics include an immortal supervillian with the same name who has goat-like features and apparently came into being during ancient times.

Whether Azazel was a goat-demon who would eventually battle a fleet of mutant heroes or simply a remote place in the wilderness, the name is less important than the purpose of the goat. While you might not have heard of this ancient and slightly bizarre ritual, it does have contemporary relevance. The story of this ancient Yom Kippur sacrifice is actually the origin of the word “scapegoat” - which comes from a 16th century edition of the bible where the word Azazel is translated (some would say, mistranslated) as “the goat that escapes.”

In the last several centuries, the word scapegoat has come to mean a group, person, or, in this case, an animal who is assigned the sins of others.

An article on Psychology Today explains that when scapegoating someone, “uncomfortable feelings such as anger, frustration, envy, and guilt are displaced and projected onto another, often more vulnerable, person or group. The scapegoated target is then persecuted, providing the person doing the scapegoating not only with a conduit for his uncomfortable feelings, but also with pleasurable feelings of piety and self-righteous indignation. The creation of a villian necessarily implies [the creation] of a hero, even if both are purely fictional.”

As Jewish people, we are very familiar with phenomenon of scapegoating and throughout our history, in times of plague, or war, or famine, powerful people and governments have looked around for a source of their troubles and then declared that we were to blame for whatever misfortune the larger group was suffering.

As Americans, we should be intimately familiar with the way our political leadership uses scapegoats to stoke irrational fears while drumming up support for their particular causes and parties. This has been a hallmark of our political system for as long as there has been an American political system. Whether they were targeting witches, native peoples, abolitionists, freed slaves, recent immigrants, Japanese Americans, LGBTQ+ folks and their allies, children who accompany parents searching for safety, or even athletes who kneel in protest, our country’s leaders have consistently lived up to the same standards of historical leaders as they attempt to alleviate stress on the majority by placing the blame for social problems on one or more minorities.

When someone says that everything bad in our country can be blamed on a specific group of people, they are effectively pulling a lot from an ancient urn and shouting- “This group is for Azazel!” After designating their sacrifice, they then confess a detailed list of social sins that we as a country and as a world are responsible for- violence, poverty, inequality, etc. But these leaders are not confessing in order to provoke some kind of internal evaluation and growth. Instead they are striving to simply release the weight of these sins onto the shoulders of their chosen sacrifice. And, just as our ancient ancestors did upon witnessing this ritual, we all too often bow and bend as we rejoice in having our sins taken from us.

Unfortunately, the biblical animal known the scapegoat did not actually escape. It was sacrificed. And, importantly, it’s life was of so little importance, that the work of the High Priest did not pause while it was being led to the cliff and thrown over. The most powerful part of this ritual of atonement was not what happened to the animal, it was the symbolic transference of sin.

The scapegoat was a means to an end. It was used and discarded.

As Jewish people, we have within our text the origin of the scapegoat, and we have within our history the terrible consequences of being a scapegoat. On this Yom Kippur, we are confronted by the communal memory of this ancient ritual, and we are challenged to confirm for ourselves that we have evolved past this practice.

As human beings, we will always feel the urge to foist our sins, our shortcomings, our failures onto someone else’s shoulders. Living Jewish lives does not mean that we no longer have these impulses. Living Jewish lives means striving to no longer be bound by these impulses.

When we are scared for ourselves, our families, our jobs, our lifestyles, our country, our futures, when we are feeling vulnerable and worrying that we have hindered our own growth, we will be tempted to turn outward, find someone who look, acts, or loves differently than we do, and to point at them, shouting that they are to blame for our misfortunes.

But, in those moments, when our hearts are filled with those ancient feelings, I urge us all to stop and remind ourselves that we are not our ancestors. Instead, we are the products of our history. We are the descendants of those who experienced pogroms and blood libels, military conscriptions, and state-sanctioned persecution. We are the descendants of those who experienced the Shoah, the Holocaust. And, that history of being singled out for society’s scorn has been written into all of our hearts.

We are not our ancestors, and we are therefore are no longer willing to allow anyone or anything to carry the sins that we are responsible for.

Our beautiful mahzor references the ritual of the two goats in the section devoted to the Avodah service. It offers us a modern replacement of this ancient ritual that allows us to tap into our more noble instincts rather than being led by our worst impulses. I close this morning with our mahzor’s words.

“The nearness of God —

Priests and Levites felt it when offering a korban [an offering to God] — nearness came through sacrifice and a thanksgiving psalm.

And our people’s poets felt it in their dreams of return —

the ones who crafted songs of exile, far from the sweet city for which they longed.

And what of us?

When do we feel that nearness?

What is our korban?

The nearness of God —

It comes through acts of goodness, deeds of self-sacrifice —when we give of ourselves in selfless ways.

It comes when we hear —truly hear —those who cry out…

Let now a Generous Presence teach us gentleness that melts our hardness of heart.

Then shall we be more sensitive to the needs of others, and responsive to their pleas —

All who struggle to be heard; and those who live behind walls of illness, poverty, and injustice.

All whose faces are forgotten from one encounter to the next; and those who never find a place of shelter and safety.

All whose skills and talents go unnoticed; and those whose bright promise has dimmed for want of attention.

All whose bodies are burdened with pain; and those whose minds are clouded by confusion.

All whose voices tremble with a cry of absence; and those whose only season is the winter of the heart.

All who die alone in spiritual darkness; and those whose isolation is a living death.

All who are abandoned, neglected, or abused; and those who have been driven from their homes by violence and war.

All who wait for love that never comes; and those who long for a word, a touch, a friend.

To all these, let us respond with open hearts.

Baruch atah, Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu al mitzvat korbanot.

Blessed are You, Eternal Presence, by whose power we sanctify life through acts of generosity and self-sacrifice.” (Mishkan HaNefesh, Yom Kippur, pgs 475-6)


Yom Kippur no longer looks like it did when the temples stood, but that’s ok. We’ve evolved past that. Now, our sacrifices are offerings from our hearts. Azazel is on his own.

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