The Weekly Ramban Series (Parshas Achrei Mos): The Waste Land

Why does the Torah command us to throw a goat down a mountain on the Day of Atonement (Vayikra 16:8)? This practice seems at once barbaric and idolatrous. The Torah speaks as though we are meant to offer a sacrifice to this demonic force Azazel who inhabits the desert. Surely any civilized person would regard this practice as unconscionable, and any religious person would regard it as unthinkable. Yet, we — a people at once civilized and religious — will one day engage in this practice.

So why do throw the goat down the mountain?

The Ramban (ad loc.), with precedent from earlier sources1, explains that Azazel is not in fact a demon or deity to be worshipped. It is rather a power which instantiates in nature. Azazel is destruction, the uncivilized, the barbaric, the warlike, the violent, the unforgivingly empty. The Ramban is careful to point out that his reading of this passage is at odds with what we might call the “Mordern Western Metaphysic” or the “Lucretian Metaphysic”. In this popular but impoverished worldview, all that exists are atoms in the void: there is no room for “spooky” things like gods, ghosts, and spirits. There is likewise no room for important things like God, Rachmanus, and Chesed. Thus, Azazel — a non-material power which instantiates in nature — cannot exist:

והנה הענין מבואר, זולתי אם תחקור מה ענין לשכלים הנבדלים ולרוחות בקרבן, וזה יודע ברוחות בחכמת נגרומנסי״א ויודע גם בשכלים ברמזי התורה למבין סודם, ולא אוכל לפרש כי היינו צריכים לחסום פי המתחכמים בטבע הנמשכים אחרי היוני אשר הכחיש כל דבר זולתי המורגש לו, והגיס דעתו לחשוב הוא ותלמידיו הרשעים כי כל ענין שלא השיג אליו הוא בסברתו איננו אמת. רמב"ן שם.

However, in the Torah’s view, there exist things which cannot be reduced to their material existence. God is one such thing. Azazel is another. Azazel, although it exists in the abstract, is concretized most clearly in Esav.2

Esav is the savage par excellence: he is a man of the field; he is a man who would rather sell his birthright — his custodianship of culture and society — for some raw vegetables, rather than wait a few moments for them to cook. He, in the symbolic language of the tradition, has long, untamed hair. His hair captures that which cannot be tamed: his hair is that which is wild, barbaric, warlike, violent, unforgivingly empty. Yaakov, however, is smooth: his hair is combed, domesticated, civilized.

To this point, Chazal record:

רַבִּי יִצְחָק אָמַר לֹא שָׁאוּל הוּא לָהּ וְלֹא שְׁאוּלָה הִיא לֵיהּ, אֶלָּא (ויקרא טז, כב): וְנָשָׂא הַשָֹּׂעִיר עָלָיו, זֶה עֵשָׂו, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: הֵן עֵשָׂו אָחִי אִישׁ שָׂעִר. (ויקרא טז, כב): אֶת כָּל עֲוֹנֹתָם, עֲוֹנוֹת תַּם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (בראשית כה, כז): וְיַעֲקֹב אִישׁ תָּם. (בראשית כז, יב):

Chazal thus view se’ir l’Azazel as the antidote of the eesh se’ir. Unlike Esav, whose character was defined by his uncivilized hair, his barbarity, his wildness, we, the descendants of Yaakov, do not allow this to define us. We do not, however, deny its power either. We instead acknowledge it and seek to transcend it. Thus, when we throw the se’ir l’Azazel we understand that we — like Esav — have the capacity for wild, barbaric destruction. We understand that we — like Esav — could grow long, unruly hair. We understand that we — unlike Esav — must rise above the indignity of barbarity by giving it its due, acknowledging its presence and its power. The se’ir l’Azazel is an homage to the Waste Land: it is a rejection of barbarity on its own terms.

Thus, on Yom Kippur, we recognize that in order to achieve atonement, we must elect to integrate the shadow of ourselves by staring it down.3 We look into the Abyss of Azazel because we know some of us resides down there. It is only after we look into the Abyss in the Waste Land, do we assume the power to reject it and to transcend it. On Yom Kippur, we seek to become angelic4, but we do not seek to become angelic by naively denying the wildness in us. Instead, we seek to become angelic through our ascent over our own barbarity.

We cannot achieve kapparah if we, like Esav, grow out our hair. Kapparah does not reside in the unforgiving emptiness of the Waste Land of humanity. It resides only in the upper border between man and Heaven. Kapparah is an angelic gift, and it costs an angelic price. We must, therefore, confront the unforgiving barbarity which we — humans — are capable of, and then, through this confrontation, move upwards. Thus, while Azazel exists untamed, it is anathema to avodas HaShem. However, our avodas HaShem can not be complete through self-delusion and naive ignorance. It is through willingness to understand the barbarity of humanity that we attain angelic attonement.

Thus, the Ramban provides the following analogy:

והמשל בזה כמי שעשה סעודה לאדון, וצוה האדון את האיש העושה הסעודה: תן מנה אחת לעבדי פלוני, שאין העושה הסעודה נותן כלום לעבד ההוא ולא לכבודו יעשה עמו רק הכל נתן לאדון, והאדון נותן פרס לעבדו, ושמר זה מצותו ועשה לכבוד האדון כל אשר צוהו, ואמנם האדון לחמלתו על בעל הסעודה רצה שיהיו כל עבדיו נהנין ממנה, שיספר בשבחו ולא בגנותו.

In our desire to serve God, we must incorporate and integrate all aspects of Being, the totality of our existence. The elevation of humanity to the angelic requires knowledge of humanity’s dark recesses. We pay the Abyss its due: we return the se’ir to Azazel, and thus, can sanctify the other se’ir to God.


  1. See Ramban ad loc.
    והנה ר״א נאמן רוח מכסה דבר, ואני הרכיל מגלה סודו, שכבר גלו אותו רבותינו ז״ל במקומות רבים. ↩︎

  2. Cf. Bereishis Rabbah 65:16:
    וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל רִבְקָה אִמּוֹ הֵן עֵשָׂו אָחִי אִישׁ שָׂעִר (בראשית כז, יא), גְּבַר שֵׁדִין, כְּמָה דְאַתְּ אָמַר (ישעיה יג, כא): וּשְׂעִירִים יְרַקְּדוּ שָׁם, (בראשית כז, יא): וְאָנֹכִי אִישׁ חָלָק, כְּמָה דְאַתְּ אָמַר (דברים לב, ט): כִּי חֵלֶק ה׳ עַמּוֹ. רַבִּי לֵוִי אָמַר מָשָׁל לְקַוָּץ וְקֵרֵחַ, שֶׁהָיוּ עוֹמְדִין עַל שְׂפַת הַגֹּרֶן, וְעָלָה הַמּוֹץ בַּקַּוָּץ וְנִסְתַּבֵּךְ בִּשְׂעָרוֹ, עָלָה הַמּוֹץ בַּקֵּרֵחַ וְנָתַן יָדוֹ עַל רֹאשׁוֹ וְהֶעֱבִירוֹ. כָּךְ עֵשָׂו הָרָשָׁע מִתְלַכְלֵךְ בַּעֲוֹנוֹת כָּל יְמוֹת הַשָּׁנָה וְאֵין לוֹ בַּמֶּה יְכַפֵּר, אֲבָל יַעֲקֹב מִתְלַכְלֵךְ בַּעֲווֹנוֹת כָּל יְמוֹת הַשָּׁנָה וּבָא יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים וְיֶשׁ לוֹ בַּמֶּה יְכַפֵּר, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (ויקרא טז, ל): כִּי בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר. רַבִּי יִצְחָק אָמַר לֹא שָׁאוּל הוּא לָהּ וְלֹא שְׁאוּלָה הִיא לֵיהּ, אֶלָּא (ויקרא טז, כב): וְנָשָׂא הַשָֹּׂעִיר עָלָיו, זֶה עֵשָׂו, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: הֵן עֵשָׂו אָחִי אִישׁ שָׂעִר. (ויקרא טז, כב): אֶת כָּל עֲוֹנֹתָם, עֲוֹנוֹת תַּם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (בראשית כה, כז): וְיַעֲקֹב אִישׁ תָּם. (בראשית כז, יב): ↩︎

  3. I should point out that the Ramban’s comments are not as explicitly psychodynamic as I am presenting them. The Ramban couches his explanation in metaphysical language which describes the world, whereas I am presenting these concepts in metaphysical language which describes the mind. I do not view my explanation as departing from the Ramban’s, however. I view myself as accounting for the consequences Ramban’s views, from his formulations of the nature of reality to the nature of man’s existence. I would maintain that this does not constitute a departure from the Ramban’s own thoughts, because the Ramban views the nature of reality as isomorphic with the nature of man’s existence. Thus, in understanding one, we understand the other. This is reflected literarily and formally in the Ramban’s commentary: the peshat and the sod are both literarily isomorphic and, now I suggest, ontologically isomorphic. Of course, there is more to be said about this. My thanks to Rav Chanoch Waxman and Devir Kahan for guiding me through this issue. ↩︎

  4. See Avos D’Rebbe Nosson (46), quoted by the Ramban:
    ראה סמאל שלא נמצא בהם חטא ביום הכפורים אמר לפניו רבונו של עולם יש לך עם אחד בארץ כמלאכי השרת בשמים. מה מלאכי השרת אין להם קפיצין כך ישראל עומדים על רגליהם ביום הכפורים. מה מלאכי ישראל אין להם אכילה ושתיה כך ישראל אין להם אכילה ושתיה ביום הכפורים. מה מלאכי השרת נקיים מכל חטא כך ישראל נקיים מכל חטא ביום הכפורים. מה מלאכי השרת שלום מתווך ביניהם כך ישראל שלום מתווך ביניהם ביום הכפורים. ↩︎

Some Musings On The Upcoming Holidays