In our parasha, we read:
וְנָשָׂא הַשָּׂעִיר עָלָיו אֶת־כָּל־עֲוֹנֹתָם אֶל־אֶרֶץ גְּזֵרָה וְשִׁלַּח אֶת־הַשָּׂעִיר בַּמִּדְבָּֽר׃
Thus the goat shall carry all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness. (JPS)
In reading this passage yet again, I was captivated by the phrase "eretz g’zeirah" which the JPS committee translated as "inaccessible region." The goat "l’azazel" is sent off to this place.
We owe the modern translation of "azazel" into scapegoat to William Tyndale, an early Protestant scholar who, in creating his 1525 English translation of the Bible, based on the Latin Vulgate, rendered the latin "caper emissarius," the Vulgate’s translation of "l’azazel," as "scapegoat," meaning the (e)scaped goat. Many scholars believe the word azazel is from the Hebrew root ayin-zayin-lamed meaning "to remove." They speculated that the doubling of the root letters indicated an intensive, meaning "complete removal." However, Hebrew scholars and Jewish interpreters as far back as the Aramaic Targums believe "azazel" to be the name of a fallen angel. In the Talmud it is speculated that the word comes from "az" – "strong" and "El" one of the names of G"d, also associated with the word "mighty." Thus the goat is sent "to the strong and mighty" which could be a demon, a fallen angel, or perhaps a mountainous place – or perhaps G"d?
Or the goat "for complete removal" is sent to a place that is cut off, separated, infertile. (The Arabic "gezira" which we know in the form of Jazeera as in "Al Jazeera" can mean island or peninsula.) All sort of fits together and makes sense, doesn’t it? Or not.
In the end, it’s sympathetic magic, isn’t it? Not all that different from the "modern" practice of kapporet or shlugen kapores which uses a chicken instead of a goat. Or, for that matter, all those bread crumbs for tashlikh.
The flowing waters carry away our sins, just as the goat carries away our sins – to an isolated, inaccessible place. Well, not entirely inaccessible – the goat is able to get there. And just how close does the "designated man" who leads the goat away come to this inaccessible region? Note what happens to the goat: it is not slaughtered, it is "set free" though one can dispute that translation, and read the Hebrew as "sent away." again, subtle difference between being "set free" and being "sent away."
It makes sense to send our collective sins away to an isolated, inaccessible place. Or does it?
Over the years I’ve often been advised to put some troubling thoughts, or known sins, away in a box, to allow me to focus on living my daily life and moving forward. (It’s often referred to as a G"d box, a place to turn over those things we can’t control, to G"d, but it is also a place to put or regrets, our known sins, etc. so that they don’t constantly pre-occupy us.) It can be efficacious, but I’ve found, in the end, you always come back to the things in the box – you can only put them out of sight and out of mind for so long. They just have a way of coming back on their own, of escaping whatever box you put them in. Is there any place so inaccessible that our sins cannot return from it? Goats wander. Might not the goat return from whence it came? Our sins can and do return to haunt us, do they not?
I guess that’s a good thing. At some point we have to deal with our problems. We can’t just keep sweeping them under the rug or putting them in a box. One wonders – if the Jewish people had to deal with their communal sins regularly instead of consigning them annually "l’azazel" (or casting them away as bread crumbs, or placing them upon a chicken) then perhaps we might have learned not to be so stubborn, recalcitrant, and recidivist. (On the other hand, we have ritualized this annual sending away of communal sins, and we could have seen it as a reminder that, try as hard as we may, we always seem to have communal sins to put upon that goat.)
I’ve been known to criticize Christianity, in a knowingly and admittedly simplistic fashion, for how the permanent remission of sin wrought through the sacrifice of Jesus basically allows any Christian to get away with whatever they want. (In reality, Christianity’s concept of sin and forgiveness, both communal and individual, is not as simple as that.) The Jewish way is only nominally better, in that we only do it (find a way to remit sins) once a year instead of continually. We still get an out. But wait, there is a crucial difference. The Jewish system differentiates between communal and individual sin. The biblical azazel ceremony is for communal sin, as are the rites we still perform at Yom Kippur. WE have sinned. WE have transgressed. Yom Kippur atones for the sins of human beings against their Deity, but for sins against one another, it does not atone.
Now there are checks and balances in the system, when it comes to individual sins. Literally and figuratively. Our deeds will be weighed on the Day of Judgment, we are told. So we really aren’t free to do what we please and expect no repercussions just because we have atoned. Yet, in the most simplistic understanding, I need only accept Christ as my personal savior to have all my sins remitted. A subtle but significant difference.
So just what is an eretz g’zeirah, and why is it a good place to send our collective sins?
The root gimel-zayin-resh means "to cut or divide." As an adjective created from this root, g’zeirah could mean cut off, isolated, inaccessible, remote. Then we must ask from what is it cut off? In the nomadic and geographical context of our ancestors, it could mean it is cut off from a supply of water. That could also imply an infertile land. That fits right in with a place where the sent away sins will wither rather than flourish.
It could be cut off from access to other lands. Thus the later Arabic meaning of island or peninsula (though both of these are surrounded by water – an interesting concept – isolated, yet fertile.)
Annually sending our communal sins away on a goat to to such a place frees the community to keep trying to do better as a community. Considering how prone we are as a community to sin, we’d spend all our time asking for forgiveness and thus never have the time to do all the things a society needs to do, communally, for the benefit of the society as a whole.
Yet we can’t put them aside forever. If we keep making the same mistakes as a community year after year it is going to come back and bite us in the ass.
Another nice thing about sending our sins off to an eretz g’zeira, is that in this inaccessible, infertile, cut-off place, our sins won’t be nourished and grow. So when we finally have to deal with them, they won’t have grown larger and more difficult to overcome. In our fertile minds, in our fertile lands, it’s easy for our communal (and individual) sins to grow and multiply. We don’t need the additional burden of exacerbated sins from the past.
This is where I was headed when I started writing this musing. To find for me, for today, my best understanding of a "eretz g’zeirah." It is a place where we can set aside our collective sins – the equivalent of that box. Yes, they may come back to trouble us, and yes, we may need to deal with them at some point, but for the moment we can lives our lives without coming face to face with them each and every day, and having them grow bigger and worse in their absence.
Yet as I wrote and pondered, a more important thought took shape. The goat "l’azazel" is set free after performing its task. So another lesson for me in all this is to remember that, whatever the vehicle is that we use to take away our sins to this inaccessible place, we spare the vehicle once it has completed that journey. That understanding alone should be enough to stop the atrocious practice of kapparot.
An "eretz g’zeirah" is a place for communal and individual sins to be set aside (for a while, if not permanently.) The scapegoat is a convenience, and easily abused.
Truth be told, sometimes we may use another human being as the carrier away of our sins-communal (as in scapegoats) and individual. We unload on others – whether clergy, friend, companion. It is important that we make sure that they, too, are set free once they have carried away our sins to an "eretz g’zeirah" for us. Something tells me that the goat somehow manages to continue living despite being left in that desolate, isolated place. Shall we not insure that our own societal (and individual) scapegoats fare no worse than the goat "l’azazel?"
© 2012 by Adrian A. Durlester
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