So often in life we struggle with desires and needs that seem to weigh us down. If only we didn’t so crave that chocolate fudge cake, wouldn’t it be easier to diet? How often do you know you have better things to do with your time, and suddenly, two hours later, you put your phone down wondering why you wasted a perfectly good evening with nothing to show for it? Wouldn’t it be great if we could somehow remove those desires we know to be so wasteful?
The first of this week’s double-portion, Acharei Mot, actually begins with a treatment of this topic that most people miss. God tells Moshe to instruct Aaron “after the death of his sons” regarding the service in the Mishkan. One would have expected a topic that directly relates to the trauma Aaron experienced in the loss of his sons.
Strangely, however, the Torah here begins a discussion of the two goat offerings that form the central part of the service on Yom Kippur.
Aaron, as the kohen gadol, is told to take two he-goats as a sin, or chatat, offering. The kohen gadol picks lots for these two goats. On one of the notes was written “For God” and this goat was offered as the central sacrifice of Yom Kippur. On the second was written “For Azazel.” The verse (16:10) suggests that this goat was taken into the wilderness and ultimately cast off the desert cliffs.
Why in order to attain forgiveness for the Jewish people must this second goat be taken off into the desert? Why not offer it up in the Temple, like all other sacrifices?
The Ramban suggests that Azazel is really Samael, “The prince who rules in the places of darkness and destruction.” On Yom Kippur, when we as a people find favor in God’s eyes, we need to appease this dark prince; hence we offer him a special sacrifice, in the darkness of the wilderness, in the places of destruction!
Can the Ramban be suggesting that we are offering sacrifices to the “dark side”? Is this Judaism? It actually smacks more of ancient Canaanite paganism!
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin shared a beautiful way of looking at this Ramban, based on the teachings of Rav Soloveitchik, zt”l.
The Talmud (Yoma 86b) states: “Great is the power of repentance, which causes premeditated transgressions to become merits.” A rather challenging statement, which implies that if I purposefully transgress, and subsequently repent and regret my actions, not only is my slate wiped clean and my past mistakes forgiven, but in fact these transgressions now serve as a merit to me in all of my future activities!
Perhaps what the Talmud is saying is if I have desires that serve to pull me down, I can turn those desires into a merit if I learn to channel them into better things.
Everything we are given in this world is ours for a reason. We all have our talents and skills, desires and foibles—all the things that bring us up, and all the things that bring us down. There isn’t much we can do about that. The question, however, is what we choose to do with it.
This, perhaps, is the offering to Samael described by the Ramban. There is a place of darkness inside each one of us that threatens to destroy us, to bring us down from the places of light we so long to reach. Judaism’s approach is: Don’t deny these desires; embrace them, channel their energy to a good purpose.
This is the secret of Yom Kippur, when we attempt to channel all the love and joy as well as the pain and anguish deep in our hearts, to a higher purpose.
Perhaps this is why this message is given here, to Aaron so soon after the death of his sons. Confronted by the incontrovertible reality of our own mortality, we easily succumb to the idea that there is no purpose, no meaning, only an all-too-often untimely ending. But if God truly loves us, and only gives us opportunities to grow, then perhaps, however painful, death too is such an opportunity.
Rabbi Binny Freedman is rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Orayta. He is a member of the Mizrachi Speakers Bureau ( www.mizrachi.org/speakers ).