Acharei Mot – The Goat that tells the story of Climate Change

Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 30 April 2019

Once again, this week Climate activists stopped traffic on roads around London. Blockading the London stock exchange, Goldman Sachs bank headquarters and Southwark bridge, Extinction Rebellion is urging the government to tell the truth about the scale of the climate crisis. Since 15 April when the protests began, more than 1000 people have been arrested in their plight to communicate the truth of climate change to the public.


Whilst their efforts have been controversial, they have definitely succeeded in their mission, bringing the threat of climate change to the public eye. David Attenborough’s new documentary, ‘Our Planet’, has also had this mission, showcasing the natural beauty of the planet to the population and examining how climate change is impacting all living creatures.


The documentary has been criticized for its emotionally provocative scene focusing on a large group of walruses in Northeast Russia. Attenborough relays the story of this coastline where less ice is available, forcing walruses to live on land. More than 100,000 walruses are left gathering on a single beach out of desperation, because their natural habitat of sea ice has migrated north. Attenborough narrates that ‘under these conditions, walruses are a danger to themselves.’


The scene spans to a group of walruses who have scaled an 80 meter cliff in search of a rest space. With poor eyesight out of the water, they are left searching for a way to return to sea to find food. In desperation, one walrus falls off the cliff, bouncing off the rocky surface, hurtling to its death. It is just one of hundreds that fall from heights they should never have scaled.


Producers of ‘Our Planet’ have defended this scene as a painful illustration of the impact of climate change. The shock factor of the protests in London, and the Netflix documentary, brings to light the most significant challenge of our time; how we look after our planet. If we act now we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero, keep global warming under 2 degrees centigrade and halt bio diversity loss. If we continue to act in the way we are, we will face a climate and ecological emergency that could spiral out of control.


Yet our often passive narrative does not lead us to thinking that it is our responsibility to take action. Instead we are left thinking we are a small part in a much bigger story, our actions feel insignificant. After a week of relying on God to redeem us from slavery, we read this week Acharei Mot, more commonly known to us for its place in our Yom Kippur morning service. We read of Aaron, the high priest, performing the sacrifices for Yom Kippur to rid us of our sins. And we read of the goat of Azazel, who carries our sins on its shoulders, who wanders of into the wilderness to a presumed fate similar to that of our Russian walruses.


What did happen to this goat, mentioned just in this chapter of Leviticus and then never again?


Midrash Sifra analyses the word Azazel to find an answer to this question. The word ‘az’ means hard, and from this we learn that it was pushed to the hardest place in the mountains. The authors believe this must be a cliff edge from the later verse which refers to the land of Gezeirah, meaning cutting. Therefore, surely the goat would end up in the most cut off place. Their conclusion suggests this poor goat was sent hurtling to its ultimate doom, either by the high priest or by the wind.


A contrasting view can be found in Talmud Yoma. Following a discussion on the length of time the goat is kept alive, the sugya tells us, ‘The school of Rabbi Yishmael taught: Azazel is so called because it atones for the actions of Uzza and Aza’el.’


Midrash tells us of two angels, Uzza and Aza’el who saw the sins of the humans before the flood of Noah. God tells them that if they had also been on Earth with free will, they too would succumb to their evil inclination and act badly. The angels did not believe God and so asked to be sent down to earth in physical bodies. When on earth they quickly fell into all forms of evil, first enticed by beautiful women, then bringing the sword into the world, increasing bloodshed and warfare, finally eating meat, prohibited by the Noahide laws. Uzza recognised the transgressions he had made and began a process of repentance. Aza’el refused to repent and continued his evil ways.


In the book of Hanoch, preserved in the Apocrypha, God sent angel Gabriel to punish Aza’el and stop his evil ways. Gabriel chained Aza’el to the hardest mountains of the wilderness. The high priest would forevermore symbolically send the people’s sins towards Aza’el, the one who refused to repent.


Later Maimonides argues there was no goat at all, it is purely a metaphor. In watching the high priest atone the Israelites felt they could live their sins behind them and start anew.


So, what is the outcome for our poor goat? Does it die, as implied by Mishnah and Talmud, or is it left to constantly wander the wilderness, waiting to meet us again? Is it symbolic, left to wander forever because we, as humans, confront our sins many times in life? Or is the ending of the goat left ambiguous so that it can return to us in a different way, later in the year?


In our Jewish calendar, nothing happens in isolation. Reading this parasha and its tales of a goat directly after Pesach and the Seder, is purposeful to help us shed light on this ritual of Azazel. Our preparations for Seder are similar to those which the high Priest went through before the sacrificial act. We cleanse ourselves thoroughly from chametz and in doing so prepare spiritually for a new agricultural year. We duplicate the rituals of the priest ensuring that we too are ready for the sanctity of the occasion.


And for many of us we end our seder with the words of Had Gadya, ‘an only kid’. This song which tells the tale of an increasing number of unlikely disasters, begins with the young goat brought by a father for his child. Is this goat our wandering goat, symbolically coming full circle? Does it turn from the goat cast off with our sins wandering in the wilderness, to the goat of childhood joy, a present in a fanciful tale. Perhaps this goat reappears to remind us of God’s promise of redemption, for if even the goat burdened with our sins can return to our narrative redeemed, so, surely, can we.


Each one of us tells the story of the goat of Azalzel. It carries with it the burden of the journey it has been on, just as we carry our stories on our shoulders. We too remember times when we have been cut off, felt on a cliff edge ready to plummet over. We remember times when we have been swayed into actions of evil, where we have over exerted our free will and pushed it to the limit. We wander the cyclical path year on year, from the harshest wilderness of Yom Kippur, to the promise of freedom at Pesach. And, like our goat, we remain alive to tell the tales, to learn from them and find our way back, to community, to our family, to our narrative.


Yet every year that we return to the beginning of our cycle, our planet becomes a bit more weary, for it too carries the weight of our journey. And in this world no longer filled with the simplicity of placing our sins on a goat, and a world where we cannot rely on our faith in God leading to ultimate redemption, we must work for our own redemption and the saving of our planet. Like the fallen angel Uzza, we must work to repent, to heal the years of damage done to our world. We must ensure that the harshest wilderness is not made worse by more climate change. And we must work to ensure that our world can bring childhood joy to the next generations.


Just as we are instructed at Pesach that we must tell and retell the story of our ancestors’ journey from oppression to freedom, we must fight for our government to tell the true story of climate change. We must educate ourselves on the continuing changes occurring on our planet. And we must be aware that we will be unable to tell and retell our stories it if we do not create a world for our children to live in. Now is a time for our action.


Our Jewish community can respond to this emergency by continued involvement in eco synagogues and by supporting the efforts of Jews for Extinction Rebellion. With our strong voice we can raise awareness of the environmental emergency and urge others to act.


May the next generation not tell a story of us relying on a goat, or others, to right the wrongs. May we never be held responsible for pushing our problems over a cliff edge, for others to deal with later. And may our generation be remembered for awakening a new admiration for our planet and our firm resolve to achieve sustainability, so that ultimately us and future generations can continue to celebrate the world we live in.