This week’s parsha details a bizarre ritual the Jews were to perform on Yom Kippur. Basically they took two identical goats, one to be sacrificed by the Kohen Gadol (high priest) to atone for the nation and the other one was sent “to Azazel,” by being thrown off a cliff.
Naturally the goat cliff tossing may not sit well with you and I’m going to get to that. But what is this Azazel we’re sending the goat to? If you’re at all familiar with the name in Christianity and pop culture, Azazel is portrayed as a fallen angel, a servant of Satan, or even Satan himself. Which brings up a bigger question, does Judaism believe in the Prince of Darkness?
Short answer. Yes.
A Satanic figure shows up throughout Jewish literature. In the Book of Job the Satan convinces God to torment his loyal servant. If you look in Rashi’s commentary, the Satan does something similar to Abraham as one of the reasons of the Akeidah (binding of Isaac), as well as Noah. Not to mention several stories in the Talmud. So Satan is clearly part of our tradition.
But the Jewish concept of Satan is vastly different from what Christianity and pop culture would have you believe. Satan is no fallen angel that rebelled against God and tries to undo His good work. There’s no war he’s trying to wage against Heaven. And there’s certainly no man in red pajamas with a pitch fork.
The Jewish concept of the devil is actually a multifaceted idea. But before I go into that, I just want to be clear. Any time we’re talking about spiritual and esoteric ideas, we can only talk about them in metaphor. Much in the way the Torah specifically refers to “the Hand of God” when we know God doesn’t have a hand, these descriptions serve to communicate in a way we can best understand in our terms, even if they aren’t necessarily an authentic picture.
The Yetzer Hara
Literally translated as negative thinking, the yetzer hara is our evil inclination. An internal urge that draws us away from what we know is right to something that we think will feel good. The yetzer hara became internal when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, where before it was an external conflict (the snake). This form of the Satan, entices us to transgress.
The word Satan (שָׂטָן) in Hebrew means the adversary or accuser. As if to say, once the yetzer hara gets you to transgress, he stops pretending to be your friend and turns on you, reporting your deeds to Hashem and demanding judgement. Once again as a metaphorical idea, the book Derech Hashem talks about an idea that there is a perpetual court case going on in Heaven. And for every transgression you do, the prosecuting attorney (as the Satan) uses it as evidence against you.
Once the yetzer hara has you questioning yourself, the Accuser has you questioning the values of the world you live in. “Is this thing really wrong? Everybody else is doing it.”
The Angel of Death
The Angel of Death (aka Malach Ha–mavis) is also known as one of the aspects of the Satan. If the Accuser manages to win that court case, he then takes on the job of executioner. Pretty diabolical.
But in the more practical sense, the Malach Ha-mavis leads us to question our life goals and aspirations. If we allow ourselves to get too into our vices, before we know it they can take priority over the most important things, even over life itself. Before we know it, our evil inclination can end up redefining what our life is about.
The Satan’s True Purpose
But despite all his dirty tricks and plotting, the Satan is actually rooting for you to win. Where other religions believe the Satan is trying to undo God’s work, Judaism views the Satan as an angel, a tool of God. When God created the Garden of Eden, the ultimate paradise, the snake was part of the design. Where we usually think of paradise as a beach with a Corona and no worries, the story of the Garden of Eden teaches us that for there to be true paradise, there must be growth through overcoming obstacles. There must be a challenge.
The Satan exists to be that challenge. He wants you to beat him. And once you do he comes back stronger and you have to do it again. But with each test you pass you get bigger and bigger.
Now that we know what we’re dealing with, why did we used to send a goat to this Azazel on Yom Kippur? Then on top of that why did the goats have to be identical? When we go through the teshuvah process, one of the essential steps is to not only identify the act we did, but we have to articulate that it was wrong. “I’ve been late to work, but it’s so hard to get up on time,” doesn’t cut it. You have to say being late is wrong. As much as we can recognize that the Satan serves Hashem, for us we have to identify it as evil. Rationalizations and sympathizing with circumstantial difficulties is not for Yom Kippur.
The word Azazel was translated into English by William Tyndale in 1530. He took the literal translation of Azazel, “the goat [ez] that was sent away [azal]” and came up with the word “escapegoat” which overtime would become scapegoat. Ironically, this word has the opposite meaning of its source. Where scapegoat refers to someone that takes the blame for something they are not guilty of, the goat sent to Azazel is our recognition that a part of ourselves must be faced, dealt with, and cast out.
Lastly, the two goats must be identical. One goat is sacrificed in the holiest place in the world and the other is sent to the Satan. There are popular stories such as the Prince and the Pauper and The Man in the Iron Mask, that tell of how twins separated at birth lead vastly different lives if not but for circumstances. And one might think the same idea with this mitzvah as the thing that decides which goat goes where is a lottery. Chance.
But the Torah is implying something different. Where a goat is at the mercy of circumstance and chance a human being has free will. The choice to cave to our yetzer hara or to overcome it. And by seeing the separate directions of these two identical animals are taken, it makes clear for us how low we can fall or how high we can soar. It’s up to us.