Parshat Acharei Mot: The Azazel

“The goat will thus carry all the sins away to a desolate area when it is sent to the wilderness. ” (VaYikra 16:22)

The parasha describes the service performed by the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur. As part of this service, two male goats are selected. One goat is offered as a chatat sacrifice. The other goat is the Azazel.

The Azazel is a very unusual service. The Kohen Gadol recites, over the goat, a confession on behalf of the nation. However, the Azazel is not sacrificed upon the altar. This goat is delivered into the hands of an appointed individual. This person leads the Azazel into the wilderness and pushes it over a cliff.

The Azazel service is an essential component of the atonement process of Yom Kippur. When the Temple existed and this service was performed, the Almighty provided a miraculous demonstration of this atonement. The Talmud explains that a scarlet thread was broken into halves. One half was tied between the horns of the Azazel. The other half was tied to a rock near the cliff. The goat was pushed from the cliff. The atonement was demonstrated through the scarlet thread. With the destruction of the goat, the thread would turn white.[1]

The service of Yom Kippur is performed by the Kohen Gadol.[2] One of the duties of the Kohen Gadol is to read from the Torah to the nation. The High
Priest leaves the Temple and enters the courtyard. He reads portions of the Torah related to Yom Kippur. There is an interesting connection between the
reading of the Torah and the Azazel. The Kohen caannot leave the Temple and begin the reading until the Azazel goat reaches the wilderness.[3]

What is the reason for this relationship? It would seem that the Kohen Gadol cannot leave the Temple until the Azazel service is completed. This relationship implies that the service is completed when the goat reached the wilderness.

This suggests an interesting contradiction. The atonement brought about by the Yom Kippur service was demonstrated by the transformation of the scarlet thread. Maimonides confirms that this thread turned white when the Azazel was forced off the cliff.[4] This implies that the Azazel service is completed only at this point. It would follow that the Kohen Gadol should not leave the sanctuary until this moment. Yet, Maimonides explains that the Kohen Gadol leaves the Temple at the moment the goat reaches the wilderness!

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Ztl suggests that this contradiction can be resolved through considering a related issue. It is normally prohibited for a spiritually unclean individual to enter the Temple. However, an exception is made in the Azazel service. The Azazel is delivered into the hands of an individual appointed to lead the animal into the wilderness. If this individual becomes defiled, he is permitted to enter the Temple.[5] Why is this exception made?

Rav Soloveitchik explains that among the duties of the Kohen Gadol is the delivery of the goat to this individual. The High Priest is not permitted to leave the Temple during the service. In order for the Kohen Gadol to perform his task, the appointed person is required to enter the Temple. Therefore, even if this person becomes unclean, he is required to enter.

Rav Soloveitchik further explains Maimonides’ position. Maimonides maintains that the Kohen Gadol does not fulfill his responsibility with the delivery of the goat to the appointed individual. The Azazel is delivered in order to be sent away to the wilderness. It follows that the execution of the Gadol’s duty requires two steps. The Azazel must be delivered to the appointed person. This person must reach the wilderness. In other words, the duty of the Kohen Gadol is completed with the arrival of the goat to the wilderness.

Rav Soloveitchik suggests that we must take one additional step in order to understand Maimonides’ position. The atonement of the Azazel is not affected until it is pushed from the cliff. This is part of the service of the Azazel. However, this aspect of the service is not a duty of the Kohen Gadol. The High Priest is required to send the goat to the wilderness. Subsequent aspects of the service are beyond the duty of the Kohen Gadol.

Now, Maimonides can be fully understood. The Kohen Gadol cannot leave the Temple until his responsibilities regarding the Azazel are executed. These responsibilities are completed when the appointed individual reaches the wilderness. The atonement process requires the goat to be destroyed. This is not the duty of the Kohen Gadol. Therefore, as soon as the goat reaches the wilderness, the Kohen Gadol is permitted to enter the courtyard and read
to the nation.[6]

“Do not lie with a male as you would with a woman. It is a disgusting act.” (VaYikra 18:22)

The Torah prohibits various sexual relations. These prohibitions are discussed in our parasha. One of the relationships that are explicitly mentioned is male homosexuality. In our modern society, the morality of this prohibition is widely challenged. However, there can be no doubt that the Torah unequivocally prohibits this behavior.

What are the objections raised against this prohibition? Among the criticisms is the claim that the homosexual is not evil. He cannot control his sexual preference. Perhaps, the preference is even genetically “hard-wired” into his personality. It is not fair to essentially deprive the homosexual of sexual expression.

Another more radical criticism is that sexual preference is subjective. It is inappropriate to label heterosexual behavior as proper and homosexual behavior as a perversion. Two people study a single piece of art. The beauty of the work inspires one. The other observer finds the work boring and mediocre. Is one correct and the other mistaken? Of course not! Each is entitled to his or her individual opinion. Why should the issue of sexual preference be treated differently? How can heterosexuality be regarded as more proper than homosexual preferences?

How do we respond to these issues? The first step is to realize that we do not apologize for the Torah. In other words, the Torah is the word of G-d.
It does not derive its legitimacy from our acquiescence to its wisdom. Consider a simple analogy. The law of gravity is one of the Almighty’s creations. If a person jumps off a ten-story building, he will experience the effects of gravity. These effects are not influenced by the jumper’s attitude toward the law and its wisdom. Gravity is a reality! The laws of the Torah derive their reality from the same source as the law of gravity. Both are expressions of the Divine will. Neither needs our approval. In short, the Torah’s condemnation of homosexuality is clear. This means the behavior is prohibited regardless of our questions regarding the justice of the prohibition.

Nonetheless, we are commanded to study the Torah. The mitzvot are a source of wisdom. We do not study the Torah to justify its laws. We study the Torah to learn from it. What can we learn from the Torah’s prohibition of homosexuality?

Nachmanides notes that the prohibition of homosexuality is adjacent to the restriction against bestiality. He explains that these two mitzvot share a common theme. Both of these relations cannot result in conception and procreation . Nachmanides explains that the sexual desire is designed to operate in the service of procreation. This suggests that homosexuality and bestiality are perversions of the sexual drive.[7]

It does not follow that a sexual act that cannot result in pregnancy is immoral. There is no prohibition against sexual relations between a man and his wife that will not result in conception. For example, it is unlikely that a nursing mother will conceive. Nonetheless, this husband and wife may have relations.

Nachmanides’ position is that in the homosexual or bestial relationship, the object of sexual desire is not suitable for the purpose of procreation.
Therefore, these relationships represent a perversion of the sexual drive. In the case of a man and woman engaging in sexual relations that will not result in conception, the sexual desire is not perverted. The object of the drive is essentially suitable for procreation. Consequently, no perversion exists.

Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra’s comments that the male and the female are created with a specific biological design. This design suggests that the male and female are the appropriate partners in the sexual act. Homosexuality ignores the basic biological design of the human species.[8]

It seems that according to Ibn Ezra, the will of the Almighty is expressed in the physical design of the human being. Therefore, homosexual relations represent an overt denial of the Creator’s will.

It must be acknowledged that the homosexual may be an innocent victim of his desires. His engagement in homosexual relations does not necessarily represent a desire to rebel against the Almighty’s plan. Also, we cannot assume that a specific homosexual repudiates the importance of procreation or the benefits of a heterosexual orientation. The homosexual may agree with the position of Nachmanides and Ibn Ezra, but find himself unable to control his preference and desire. This is a tragedy. However, homosexual behavior is nonetheless prohibited. Every person is confronted with desires that the individual knows are wrong. In some cases, we may be unable to control our urge to act on these desires. This does not make the behavior
correct.

 

[1] Tractate Yoma 67a.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avodat Yom HaKippurim 1:2.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avodat Yom HaKippurim 3:8.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Mesechet Yoma, Chapter 6. See also Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avotad Yom HaKippurim 3:7.

[5] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avodat Yom HaKippurim 5:21.

[6] Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Kobetz Chidushai Torah, pp. 120-122.

[7] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 18:22.

[8] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 18:22.