I had a remarkable experience in the Judean Desert last summer, one I resolved on the spot to keep to myself (mostly) and finally to write to you all about on this Friday between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We’re often in Israel, but we don’t usually have too many guests come to visit us. But this year was the exception. Our daughter and son-in-law came to spend a week with us. We spent time with four different Shelter Rock couples traveling in Israel. And we had Joan’s brother and brother-in-law in and out over the course of three weeks in July. It was lovely having everybody come to call! But it was with Jonathan and Bela that we had the experience I want to write about today.
The Judean Desert is a desert (what else?) east of Jerusalem that descends all the way to the Dead Sea in the south. Although I generally like exploring new places on my own, we were strongly advised to engage the services of a guide with a jeep to visit this place and that is what we ended up doing. (He was great too—recommended to us by Shelter Rockers Sandy and Richard Cohen, I will be happy to pass his contact information along to anyone contemplating a similar tiyyul in the desert.) And so, on one warm day in July, we set off to find our guide (and his jeep) in a gas station near Ma’aleh Adumim. And there he was when we got there, waiting for us just where he said he’d be. We were off to a good start!
I’d love to tell you all about what we saw in the four hours we spent with him in the desert. But there was one moment that was so exceptional that I want instead to write to you this week only about that one specific experience. The desert is one of those places that looks like there’s nothing there until someone shows you how much you are missing completely while you’re too busy deciding that there’s nothing in front of you but a huge amount of empty space. (That’s why you need a well-trained guide, ideally one who speaks geological, botanical, and zoological English well.) And we had moments like that over and over as we moved along, occasionally encountering some sheep or some camels—both the property of mostly invisible Bedouin tribesmen—but more generally encountering nobody at all. When people talk about the emptiness of the desert, this sense of complete aloneness in an immeasurably vast expanse of uncharted wilderness is surely what they mean. (The implications of all that emptiness for the two-state solution is a different matter, one I’d like to write about some other time.)
And then, suddenly, our guide stopped the jeep and we all got out. I looked around. Nothing. Just blue sky all above—I’ve been to Montana, but this struck me as even bigger big-sky country—and endless wilderness in every direction. We were, however, standing on the edge of a very high cliff. Our guide waited for us to take it all in and then, after pausing for maximal effect, he announced our location. This, he said, was Azazel.
That stopped me in my tracks. Azazel? Really? When Israelis want to tell each other to go to hell, they use Hebrew words that literally mean “go to Azazel.” But who thought there really was such a place? It was a bit like discovering, after a lifetime of hearing my father talk about his parents’ shtetl in Poland, that there actually was such a place, that it exists in real time and space, that you could actually go there if you wanted and spend a few days looking around. (I wrote about the experience of discovering our shtetl’s web-presence in a letter to you all about six years ago; if you’d like to reread what I wrote then, click here.) But this was even more amazing: on some level I suppose I understood that that shtetl must really have once existed and was merely shocked to learn that it was still there and that its team played in the Polish Football Federation, whereas this was Azazel, which I never actually thought existed at all.
Or did I? Azazel is mentioned in the Bible four times, all in the sixteenth chapter of Leviticus. The text there, mysterious in a dozen different ways, is about Yom Kippur and particularly about the great, complex ritual that was ordained to be carried out on that day in the Tabernacle in the desert and then, eventually, in the great Temple in Jerusalem. The ritual has so many parts that it’s hard for me, even after all these years, to keep it all straight without going back to consult the book again and again. But the part of the ritual that is the most stirring, but also the most challenging emotionally, surely has to do with the two goats. The High Priest is commanded to take two goats and to bring them right up to the entrance to the sanctuary. There, he is to cast lots in some unspecified way so that one of the goats ends up designated as the one “For God” and the other, as the one “For Azazel.” (Just as an aside, the English word “scapegoat” comes to us directly from a misunderstanding of that last expression. In 1530, when Walter Tyndale published the first translation of the Torah into English, he based himself on earlier translations into Latin and Greek and presumed that Azazel was a Hebrew word meant to denote the “goat that was to escape,” for which animal he coined his own neologism: “scapegoat.” I suppose “escapegoat” must have sounded clumsy to his ear, just as it does to mine.)
And then the ritual becomes even more challenging. The goat designed “for God” is sacrificed by the High Priest himself as a sin offering. But the other goat, the one left living, was not killed at all (or at least not yet) but was rather sent off into the desert to bear the sins of the people, apparently the ones that could not be undone with something as simple as a sin offering, to Azazel, a spot in the desert a long ways off from Jerusalem. For me personally, it would have been more than enough just for the goat to be sent off in the desert to survive as best it could. And that is, more or less, was Scripture appears to wish as well: that the goat be taken to the place called Azazel and that from there “the goat be sent [even further] off into the wilderness.” In actual fact, the goat was pitched off the cliff and, as the Mishnah (in my opinion just a bit too enthusiastically) reports, never actually got all the way to the bottom while still alive. So that’s Azazel—a metaphor of some sort (for us, not so much for the goat) for the relinquishment of sin meant to inspire worshipers to feel cleansed of wrongdoing, thus able to face Judge God unburdened by the fear of punishment for sins perhaps inadvertently committed but now at least ritually undone.
And that’s where I was standing. Not in a book or in a dream-temple, but on an actual cliff in the actual Judean Desert, precisely as far from Jerusalem as tradition says (and logic dictates) the “slow-placed man” Scripture ordains accompany the goat to Azazel might plausibly have reached in the time allotted. I looked around. It was just us up there. I detected no traces of prior visitors, let alone ancient slow-paced Temple employees. A bit timidly, I edged towards the cliff. It looked pretty far down to me! The guide, now gilding the lily just a bit—in my experience, this is a feature of Israeli tour guides in general—solemnly informed us that archeologists have combed the terrain at the bottom of the cliff and found…the bones of no animals at all other than goats. That seemed a bit too much to swallow—the last time anyone accompanied a goat to Azazel was in the first century CE, almost two thousand years ago. And the bones are still there? I don’t think so!
But the cliff really is there. Officially called Mount Azazel by the Israelis and Jabel Muntar (literally, “Mount of the Watchman”) by the local Arabs, it is, at 1720 feet above sea level, clearly the highest peak in the desert. And there we were…wondering what it can possibly have been like in ancient times when the slow-paced man finally arrived at the peak and granted efficacy to the High Priest’s prayer by sending the goat off the cliff into the air. In my heart, I’d like to think that that was just the official version, that when he got there all alone and no one was looking he just sent the goat off to fend for itself as best it could. But, really, who knows…and for me, two thousand years after the last goat went sailing off the cliff or didn’t, the real issue at hand was the notion that sin even can be eradicated through prayer and rituals involving the transference of those sins to animals.
Of course, the ancients didn’t really think that, any more than we really think that throwing breadcrumbs into some stream somewhere somehow cleanses us of sin really. To me, all of these ancient and modern rituals have one single truth at the core: not that wrongdoing can be magically erased absent the kind of true repentance on the part of the wrongdoer that could conceivably trigger the forgiveness of God, but that human beings—for all we find it almost hypnotically pleasant to imagine otherwise to be the case—can change, can let go of their baser quirks and disreputable ways merely by summoning up the resolve to grow into a newer and finer iteration of themselves. That just as the goat can leave the Temple behind and meet its fate on its own, so can we all leave the rituals particularly that attend Yom Kippur behind and meet our destiny on our own terms, alone in our own wilderness and unencumbered by the need endlessly to self-justify. To stand in judgment before God is the central idea around which Yom Kippur revolves….but to do that thing one needs neither immense learning nor any level of facility with ritual at all. To face Judge God, one needs to be possessed of the things that we all find the most complicated to acquire: uncompromised spiritual integrity, a deep sense of personal probity that actually makes it as impossible to lie to ourselves as it is to lie to an all-knowing God, and a will to grow personally into a finer version of oneself that is specifically not undertaken to garner the approval, or even the respect, of the world.
The goat leaves the Temple, finds its way to Mount Azazel…and brings the sins of Israel to the wilderness where they can dissipate and do no harm like the florets of a dandelion in the morning breeze. The challenge in considering that ritual from the vantage point of the ages is to find it in us to do the same thing…only, in our day, without the goat. Probably, that’s all for the best. (It’s certainly better for the goat!) But, I can promise you, a tiyyul to the Judean Desert and a few moments atop Mount Azazel is excellent for the soul…and a stimulating way, even in July, to begin to prepare for the Days of Awe now upon us. I recommend it highly!