Two ideas today: Azazel and love letters.
This week’s Torah portion goes into details about the Yom Kippur service, which frankly was a lot bloodier than the hunger-and-white-clothing event we have today. Acharei also talks about the casting of lots onto goats for sacrifice to G-d and to Azazel.
You know, Azazel. I’m sure he’s in every machzor you’ve ever seen right? He has his own service dedicated to him, right?
Yeah, not so much. Seems like Azazel’s about as prominent in Judaism as that pesky Asherah.
So who is this guy Azazel?
Azazel can be a who, but it can also be a what. Ask Chabad and they will tell you that Azazel is the cliff that the goat was pushed off. That makes sense, as Azaz is rough or strong, and El is the root of Elohim. But Azazel can also be the name of a shadowy supernatural demon related to warfare. Perhaps it’s both, or a little more of one component or the other, depending on who you are and what time in history it is.
There’s no denying anymore that the religion practiced by the ancient Israelities was bordering on paganism. While I love the modern cultural midrash that the people of the past were closer to “Bible Times” and therefore closer to the true teachings of the Jewish faith, archeology and biblical scholarship is teaching us that truly, the ancient Hebrews weren’t really better Jews than we are today. Their idols were clay statues. Our idols are TV stars and fast food restaurants. As the old joke goes, “same stuff, different day” or to borrow back from the Bible, “there’s nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
There’s a fear in talking about things like this. In the frum world, you would be accused of helping people go “off the derech”, or leading them off the path of righteous Jewish life. In the liberal Jewish world, you would be accused of “confusing people”, making them question the Judaism-as-a-straight-line-of-continuity mantra. In other words, if you talk to people about Azazel, surely they will marry non-Jews and revoke their synagogue membership (because we all know that biblical scholarship is the #1 reason people stop affiliating, right?)
Imagine a love letter written by someone who had no sense of poetry: someone who only understood things in the literal. Like a Vulcan or something.
It would read:
As it is a custom in this country to present those whom we value as methods of companionship with notes of appreciation, I have taken the liberty of visiting my local Walgreens and picking out a card that is neither too expensive not too cheap, with the hopes that you will accept it and continue this relationship. I am glad that when I met you, my dopamine levels rose and that yours did in kind. I hope that we will continue to see each other until we are bored and want to do something else.
Chemically and biologically yours, -Kevin
Unless you have a twisted sense of humor, I doubt this card would resonate with you. And that’s why literal religion isn’t impressive, either.
Judaism, I believe, is a communal love letter to God. It’s language is flowery, confusing, sometimes contradictory, because like all love letters (except the one above) it is written to express something that is greater than the literal. The poetic, figurative, passionate experience of life is what we as Jews are all about.
I don’t fear Azazel. I don’t fear tohu v’vohu. I don’t fear the story of God trying to kill Moses. I don’t fear things I don’t understand, or that scholars haven’t figured out, or things that don’t make sense in my modern mind, because I recognize that these are love letters. They are love letters written not to me, not to appeal to me, but to appeal to God.
All relationships change over time. How we express our gratitude to the Divine is different now than it was when we offered these sacrifices. As the relationship changes, the love letters will change.
But the love is the constant.
The love never goes away.
One last thing: have you ever reread old emails you sent to someone? Have you ever looked at cards people have given you from the past? Have you ever thought “wow, I felt so different back then” or “I can’t believe that’s how we used to talk about each other when we were young!” That’s how I read the Bible. I read the love letters that other people wrote, to an experience called God which we all love. I admire their words, because they are not my own. They managed to say things that I could never say, because my experience is different. It’s almost voyeuristic. And it’s what keeps me coming back for more.