Acharei Mot (April 2014)

Acharei Mot

The fall of the year after my father died, I drove through hills of dull red and trees leaved in bright gold, into Zion National Park. My friend and I walked up the Virgin River. We decided, as we often did, to stray a little off the path that led to the Temples of Sinawava, and into some boggy ground. I tripped and fell and when I came up spattered, I realized that the silver ring on my thumb was gone into the river. It had been the gift of an ex-partner. My relationship with them had been twisted so painfully around my father’s illness and death that when my mom got sick four months earlier, I had called it off. I stared at my bare right thumb, at the pale circle of skin where the ring had been. I told myself that it didn’t matter much, and I didn’t grope long in the mud, but I was silently furious at the way that stream had stripped my ring from me.

An hour later, I had set off on my own further down-stream, for a small clearing amid high, solemn rocks fitly called the Court of the Patriarchs. I stood, miraculously alone, in the wild, dry, sage-studded circle between these stones and I swear to you, I felt them talking to me. I didn’t know what they wanted to say, but I heard what I needed to hear. Let go, I heard from them. Let go. This year has been set down for you; now walk away. I listened; and I actually bowed a little; and I did. I walked away.

In Acharei Mot, Aaron is minutely instructed by God in how to designate a scapegoat – a goat for Azazel – and how to send it away. It’s the first time God interacts with Aaron since the stunning deaths of his sons Nadav and Avihu, two par’shiot back. God has filled the intervening space with a reiteration of laws of kashrut, and then with explicit, conscientious detail on how people with physical conditions that convey impurity are to be isolated, cleansed and returned into the community. God and our Torah generously leave Aaron the space and privacy of silence. And then we, and God, return to Aaron with the instructions for the Yom Kippur sacrifice. Unprepared proximity to God has destroyed Aaron’s sons. So God gives exquisitely detailed instructions for how Aaron is to come into God’s holiest presence on the holiest of days. These commands are Aaron’s blueprint for how to return to holy relationship, on an even more intimate level than before.

A goat designated by lot for Azazel is sent out to the wilderness on that day, bearing the weight of Aaron’s bloody hands and all of the sins of Israel for the year. This goat is an enduring mystery for us. Who, or where, is Azazel? The word is mentioned nowhere else in our Tanakh! Where does that goat go? Rabbeinu Bachya sees “Azazel” as a cyclical word. The goat (eiz) goes (azal) – “Azazel” means simply that the goat keeps going, without answering the wheres and whys of its destination! Nachmanides comments that the root “Az”, “strong,” is doubled in “izuz,” “mighty,” and takes that word as the base for Azazel. Azazel is most often understood to be a mighty opponent of God, a demon of the wilderness. But wherever we do or do not understand that goat to go, it does not come back. There is no ritual of return for the goat that Aaron sends to Azazel, no cleansing after which the community is encouraged to accept it again. It is simply gone.

We have questions for which there are no answers; we have memories whose faces we can’t bear to see again. The goat for Azazel frees the entire Israelite people to rest; to renew; and to “be clean before God.” The goat is palpable, alive and perhaps kicking as it stands by the entrance to the Tent and its fellow is slaughtered within. Do Aaron’s lips tremble as he speaks every Israelite’s sin over the head of this goat? Does he, like me, rub his thumbs, still warm from the blood and the hair, after it has disappeared?

What we do know is that after that expiation, after the goat is sent away, God is ready to give the Israelites laws about the most intimate of human interactions, sex, and to tie those laws directly into the holiness of intimacy with God. “No man shall come near the flesh of a relative for inappropriate relations: I am God,” we read. “Don’t come near,” God says – “al tikr’vu,” the same word root used for Nadav and Avihu’s fatal approach (“Korvatam”). To be ready to draw near, to God and to one another, we need to send out some of our pain; some of our guilt; some of our grief. We don’t make them less real. But we accept that we do not know where they will land, and we give ourselves permission to uncouple from them.

For this week, and every week, may we all find access to unburdening. May the wild unknown open to accept what is too heavy for us to bear, and may we all, lightened, know each other and God with tenderness and with respect. Shabbat shalom.

April 2014