Aharei Mot (Leviticus 16)

Aharei Mot (Leviticus 16)

A D’var Torah by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

“Aaron shall take the two he-goats and let them stand before the Lord at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the Lord and the other marked for Azazel” (Leviticus 16: 7-8).

“Aharei Mot,” the title of this parasha, means “after the death,” referring to “the two sons of Aaron who died when they were too close to the presence of the Lord” (JPS translation) [1]. These words are a time reference as we continue the great biblical story to the Day of Atonement we call Yom Kippur, a set day to be kept forever. All of Leviticus 16, in fact, is devoted to the expiation of sin and consequent purification. Great detail is given as to how the priests prepared for this time of atonement, which Jews all over the world honor (even if it is the only time they go to the synagogue). Scrupulous attention is paid to the priestly white linen attire and a host of other atonement rituals, including the choice of a bull for sacrifice and a pair of he-goats. Of the latter, only one is chosen by lot to be sacrificed. The second, marked for Azazel, is to carry all the sins of the Israelites into the wilderness. Like casting our bread crumbs into natural waters at Rosh Hashana, sending Azazel into the wilderness is reminiscent of the banishment of Cain and of Hagar and Ishmael as well. Cain eventually found respite in Edom, where he and his descendants prospered. Hagar and Ishmael were comforted that God would make of the Israelites two great nations.

But what of Azazel, who symbolically carried all our sins away? Did he find respite on the mountain that some think was near Mount Sinai? Different rabbis of old have different explanations. The one that I like best is that of Ibn Ezra. “According to Saadia [Gaon],” he writes, Azazel is “the name of a mountain, so called because it was precipitous”[2].  Possibly the goat driven into the wilderness would eventually stumble on the rocky cliffs and fall to its death, but it would not be slaughtered as a sacrifice. Other commentators explain that “Azazel” is a compound word (more common in Aramaic than in Hebrew). Thus “az azel” means “the goat went” [3]. Rashi, however, translates Azazal as meaning “to the goats;” in other words, the goat was released alive into the wilderness, presumably to dwell among the other wild goats. The “el” at the end of the word is simply a grammatical suffix. I am comforted by Rashi’s explanation [4].

I was born in January, you see. My astrological sign is the goat, a designation with which I was never comfortable until I visited Arizona, Scottsdale to be exact, where a single, dry, brown mountain dominated the arid landscape. As my stay there grew longer, though, I began to discern shapes on the rocky mountain. Animals, living being of different kinds. And the most agile among them were goats. Surprisingly beautiful to my newly opened eyes, they were mountain goats. One of them stood high on a cliff, looking out beyond the mountain, protecting the flock below. I began to think that being a mountain goat was perhaps a wondrous thing. To me, it signified that Azazel was cast by lot to be a survivor, a goat that could withstand the barren wilderness and create a family there. Perhaps, in overcoming the sins with which it had been burdened as a form of sacrifice, the biblical goat had also endured.

Watching God’s creatures, the nimble goats, I was so moved at the time that I wrote a poem about this experience. I called it “Born in January,” like me. Now, with a little more humility – fitting for Yom Kippur — I am giving it a new name: “Azazel.”

Azazel [5]

Mountain goats in their whiteness

clamber up the stony cliffs,

scale rocky heights,

melt age-old snowcaps

with heated vision.

Flock protected beneath his

Fortress, a monarch stands

alone atop the tajo.


[1] Aharei Mot, JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1999) 244.

[2] Ibn Ezra. Quoted in Michael Carasik,

[3] Michael Carasik, 120

[4] Ibid., 121.

[5] First published in the 10th Anniversary Issue of “Voices Israel,” Haifa, Israel, 1982.

©️Corinne Copnick, Toronto, 1974. All rights reserved.

For those who would like to read a story about a spiritual awakening related to the Book of Jonah, which is usually read the afternoon of Yom Kippur, please see my earlier posting, “Kiss a Whale and Lick Cancer,” in the section headed “Musings.”