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Parshiyot Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5775 — 04/29/2015

Parshiyot Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5775 — 04/29/2015

There are a number of things that are forbidden under most circumstances, but that are permitted, or even mandatory in the context of the Temple service.  For example, it is forbidden to wear a mixture of wool and linen (sha’atnez), but some of the priestly garments are required to be made with such a mixture.  It is forbidden to slaughter animals on Shabbat, but the prohibition is overridden for the Shabbat communal offerings.  It is prohibited to eat meat of an animal or bird that has not been properly slaughtered by severing the esophagus and windpipe from the front of the neck, with a knife, yet a bird sin-offering is slaughtered by severing the neck of the bird, from behind (the nape), with the kohen‘s fingernail (melikah), and the kohanim eat the meat.  And it is certainly forbidden to make an offering to any being other than Gd, yet on Yom Kippur we cast lots on two goats, one for Hashem, one for Azazel!  Azazel is a demon, and Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year!  What’s going on here?

In order to understand the meaning of the Azazel service, we must appreciate the nature of the forgiveness and atonement of Yom Kippur.

The highest level of forgiveness emanates from the very source of divine chesed.  It comes from an infinite greatness that can embrace both the most comprehensive overview and the most detailed scrutiny.  This level knows the holy and the good with all their benefits, as well as the profane and the evil with all of their harm.  It recognizes that all is measured on the exacting scale of divine justice, and that the tendencies towards evil and destruction also serve a purpose in the universe. …

Absolute truth demands that we confront the paths of idolatry and evil, in deed and thought; it opposes all repulsiveness, impurity and sin.  Still, in its greatness, it finds a place for all. …

The forgiveness of Yom Kippur aspires to this lofty outlook, as  expressed in the Azazel offering. … The elevated service of Yom Kippur is able to attain a level that confers a limited recognition even to the demonic evil of Azazel.  At this level, all flaws are transformed and recitified.  (Gold from the Land of Israel, pp.200-1)

 I think to understand what Rav Kook is saying we first need to understand the nature of good and evil, and where they come from.  Our tradition tells us that the only reality is Gd: Hashem, He is Gd, there is nothing else (Devarim 4:35).  Gd creates from within Himself, and creation is, by its nature, dual.  “Gd said Let there be light, and there was light.  And Gd saw the light, that it was good, and Gd divided the light from the darkness.”  (Bereishit 1:3-4).  Gd made both the light and the darkness, as King Solomon says: Zeh le’umat zeh asah Elokim – Gd created both this (good) and that (evil) (Kohelet 7:14).  If we want to have a creation, we must have distinctions, and if we have distinctions, then we have relative gradations of good and evil, of closeness to Gd or the opposite.  Nothing is purely one or the other.  In Parashat Terumah, we quoted Rav Kook on this very point:

The difference between pure and impure is similar to the difference between good and evil.  These distinctions are true and valid, and it is necessary for our moral development to recognize and emulate good, while abhorring evil and corruption.  However, these distinctions are really only by way of comparison.  Good and evil are in fact relative terms.  On a very fundamental level we recognize – at least intellectually – that everything has some ultimate purpose and value.  Nothing can exist, nothing was created, which is absolute evil.  Everything must relate, on some level, to the underlying good of the universe.

Ramban, in his commentary to Exodus 13:12 tells us what the purpose of creation is:

In fact this is the purpose of creation itself, for we have no other explanation of creation. And Gd has no desire, except that man should know and acknowledge the Gd that created him.

It is apparently Gd’s desire that there be creatures in the world who can “close the circle” so to speak, and be able to bring their awareness back from the realm of duality to experience the Unity from which all duality comes.  For that to happen, there has to be the appearance of evil, for two reasons.  First, as we’ve already stated, there can be no creation without duality.  Second, for a creature to come to recognize Gd as the Creator and Source of creation, I believe that creature must have free will.  That is, the creature must have a sense of self advanced enough that it can make the non-instinctive choices – the choices that are in the direction of spiritual growth rather than physical gratification – that lead to the requisite expanded levels of awareness.  Put in a more traditional way, the creature must have a neshama, the aspect of the soul that is unique to human beings, and which connects the body (and the lower levels of the soul) to the Divine.

Our perceptions are stuck in the manifest, physical realm most of the time.  This is the realm where opposites oppose one another.  The infinite source of all creation is non-dual; all the opposites that come out of this level of non-duality must, by nature, be harmonized in it.  On Yom Kippur we go through various rituals to raise our awareness to a state where we begin to perceive the harmony that underlies duality.  The scapegoat ritual, as Rav Kook describes it, is one of those rituals; we perform a specific action to catalyze a shift in our thinking, to challenge our assumptions, to get us out of our routine thought patterns, out of our comfort zone if you will.  Once we are stirred out of our complacency, and some new input is made available to us, when we settle back down, it will, almost always, be to a new, more highly ordered state (this process is used in tempering metals, in searching numerically for solutions to systems of equations that cannot be solved analytically, by nature in evolutionary processes, etc.).

Perhaps a ritual like this is not for every place or every time – it certainly contains the possibility for antinomianism, as one can see by the care with which Rav Kook expresses himself, and the qualifications he puts on what he is saying.  But in its appropriate context, as commanded by Gd, it can produce a powerful effect.

Pirke Avot, Chapter 3

Mishnah 1

Akavya ben Mahalalel says: Consider three things and you will not fall into the grip of sin.  Know from where you came, where you are going, and before Whom you will have to give an account and reckoning.  From where you came – from a putrid drop.  Where you are going – to a place of dust, worms and maggots.  And before Whom you will have to give account and reckoning – before the Supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.

Quite a contrast between beginning and end on the one hand, and the accounting for what comes between!  Most people take this to be a rather dreary outlook on life.  Physical life is just a vale of tears, constant pain and suffering, and then you get punished at the end for the inevitable screwups.  I see the Mishnah differently (or I began to when I reread it this time).  It is certainly true that there isn’t a whole lot to recommend the physical world.  How many people truly find happiness in the physical world?  Those that do find happiness, do so by transcending the physical, not by being caught up in it!

And yet, we have to give an accounting for our actions in the physical realm.  Why should this be?  It can only be because our actions, indeed our very existence, has meaning, has importance to Gd.  Our every action has the potential to cause great uplift in the cosmos, to bring creation closer to its ideal.  We may start out and end up as nothing, but in between we can raise ourselves and everything around us to unimagined heights.  It’s inspiring!  Let’s do our best to actualize that huge potential.