The Parsha today is Acharay Mot, from the book of Leviticus, which is basically a handbook for priests, but which also includes passages of soaring beauty and meaning. This portion concerns, yes, a walk-through for the Cohenim relating to the rituals for Yom Kippur, the day of expiation, the cleansing and sanctiﬁcation of the sanctuary through sacriﬁces.
One of these sacriﬁces was the Azazel Goat, which is assigned to carry the sins of the people. The meaning of that word has been lost, but the animal itself wasn’t killed, but was exiled, driven away into the desert as a kind of dry tashlich.
Sanctuary is the translation of Kodesh, shrine, holy place. Holy in English connotes purity and sinlessness. The Hebrew word Kodesh doesn’t mean sinless, but separated, special. The Azazel goat is separated as a wish to separate us from evil, perhaps from the mystery of our own animal natures. We’re made of what the goat is made of.
I used to be puzzled by why people said yasher koach to the reader of his verses of Torah, wishing him strength. We’re told that after the destruction of the Temple, the great rabbis sanctiﬁed time as a substitute for place and prayer as a substitute for sacrifice. The prayer is meant to be equal in intensity, passion, yearning, and need to the offering of bulls, rams, goats, the unblemished heifers, he lowing oxen. Think of the strength needed to cut the throats of all those animals you have raised and driven to Jerusalem to be separated.
The separation between spiritual and daily things, between acts of ordinary and those of special meaning, between kodesh and chol is very much a Jewish model. Jews don’t transubstantiate or melt away into baser things or take over the souls of the animals they sacriﬁced. We don’t become the God we worship, either. I think one of the purposes of all those begats in the Torah is to tell us that the term God’s Children is metaphoric and won’t stand up to DNA testing. I know your grandfather; he was human, warts and all. A further understanding of this is Tsimtsum.
Isaiah, in ecstasy, said, “Heaven and earth are full of His glory,” and “From everlasting to everlasting”– but if God ﬁlls every space, what space is there for us to exist, to breathe, to decide, to choose. We’re crushed by God, by the weight of the all-existing One. Conscious of this, the mystic, Isaac Luria, said that God pulls up a bit, pulls away. When I think of this, I see the two membranes, one covering the lung, the other on the inside of the ribs. The slight vacuum caused by the space between them, an all but invisible space unless you smoke, allows us to breathe and the chemical pulls of oxygen and carbon dioxide out and back, out and back, form a kind of yearning that is our desire to breathe. God has withdrawn the Kodesh, the separating presence, and the vacuum created by God’s absence causes yearning and the yearning is the beginning of the desire for transcendence, love, and community. I don’t understand why Eastern religions want to get rid of desire. Without desire, there’s no virtue, no courage, and no fun, either. Didn’t God have fun creating all the worlds?
Christopher Fry, in his play “The Lady’s Not For Burning,” has two lovers speaking. She says, “I shall be gone tomorrow.” He says, “You make the room suddenly cold. Where will you go?” She says. “Where will you come to ﬁnd me?” Luria says, “That’s what God says.”