Story Time: L’Azazel, Part 1

This is kind of a departure for me, but I’ve been working on this for a little while and wanted to post it somewhere for people to see. It’s an experiment in fiction-as-midrash based on the Torah readings for the High Holidays. More than that though, it’s a story about a goat.

You’ll have to excuse the expression, but I’m a goat. If I’ve got a name no-one’s ever told me what it is, but I know who I belong to. It’s branded on my side, seared in letters of pink, puckery scar tissue where the fur will never grow back: ”L’Azazel.” Which is to say, ”for Azazel.” Before all this happened I’d never heard of the lady personally, which isn’t all that surprising–your social circles are pretty limited when you’re a goat. In all my wandering since, I’ve never run into her, but if you do, you let her know she’s got a goat waiting for her if she cares to claim him. Personally I’ve got my doubts.

Hell, we all do. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about humans–and I mean no disrespect by this, some of my best friends are humans–it’s that each and and every one of them is deep-down crazy because they know they belong so someone who will never show up to claim them. You can feed me whatever line of pious bullshit you want, but you know in your heart of hearts that what keeps you up in the middle of the night is the fear that your owner is never gonna show up for you and when it’s all over you’re gonna find yourself stuck out in the wilderness all by yourself like an old lady on a bench, clutching a plastic shopping bag to her chest as the darkness falls around her, waiting for a bus that will never come.

There I go again. I didn’t used to talk like this when I was just your run-of-the-mill, every day, garden variety goat. I didn’t talk at all in fact. Goats don’t, as a rule. Don’t bother asking whether that’s because they can’t or because they just don’t feel the need. I’ve asked myself that question more than once and I don’t know the answer. To tell you the truth it’s getting harder and harder to remember what it was like being just a goat. I never used to think about things so much as I do now, and a lot has happened since then.

Back in those days I didn’t belong to anybody like I do now. For certain, some schmuck probably considered me his property–it’s hard to be a goat in this world without somebody laying claim to your furry behind. But the thing is, I never really knew anybody owned me, so as far as I was concerned, I was a self-made goat. We lived in the same house as the family of humans who cared for us, and ate much the same food, so we were more inclined to regard them as equals and family members than as owners and masters. We lived our lives and, in their own inscrutable way, they led theirs.

I lived in a herd with all my brothers and sisters. We spent most of our days wandering the pasture land looking for what to eat. When the sun was high up and the air got hot enough to rise in shimmering waves from the dry, dusty ground we would laze about in the shade of a terebinth or in the cleft of a rock. There were the humans too who spent their days with us–girls with dusky skin and long black hair who would go out with us at dawn and come back with us at night. Sometimes when we were resting in the afternoon one of them would lift her voice up in song, and it seemed like the whole world would go quiet, listening.

It wasn’t a bad life for a goat, and none of us knew anything else. In due time I probably would have been quietly slaughtered and ended up as some family’s festival meal, and that would have been the end of me–an unassuming end for an unassuming goat. But God, that old trickster, had another road laid out for me, a road that stretched all the way from the top of the mountain where the great temple stands down into the trackless wastes inhabited by no one but outlaws, dreamers and men of God, a road with no map but a name seared into my flank: L’Azazel.

And here is how it all began:

One morning as the summer was drawing to a close my siblings and I were following the girls who watched over us down the narrow, winding path that led from little village on the hill down to the pasture land in the valley below. The sun was just beginning to crest over the hill when I looked up and there, standing in the village square waiting for us was a small group of men. Some of them I recognized from the village, from the house where we slept at night, in fact. There were others there too, though–men like I’d never seen before, tall and well-fed with sleek, luxuriantly oiled beards that cascaded down over their chests. They were dressed in long robes, and as we came up the path they seemed to be talking with the men from the village, scrawny and undernourished in comparison, who carried themselves with an air of anxious deference. At least I think I thought that–it’s really hard to say at this point what I was really capable of understanding at the time, and what I only recollected afterwards, when my mind had started to work in ways no ordinary goat’s could.

Rather than turn aside down the hill as we ordinarily would, the girls led us up to the little clump of men and brought us to a halt. We milled around in the early morning light, as nervous as our human owners, unsure what the reason was for this unwarranted delay in the daily routine. The servants walked among us at the direction of the tall men, examining my brothers one by one, opening the mouth of this one to get a better look at his teeth, prodding the flank of that one, carefully scrutinizing the belly of another. In the end, they singled me out along with one of my brothers and brought us before the great men, who nodded with approval. We had been found acceptable, though for what we couldn’t say. Instead we bleated sadly as we were driven away down the hill by the tall mens’ servants, separated from the herd and from everything we had known in our short lives.

Great sages have debated for centuries about the true significance of the temple sacrifices. I’ve had the opportunity to speak to a number of them, because great sages have a way of pissing off powerful men and being banished to live or die in the wilderness as their wisdom allows. Some have held that the sacrifice is nothing more or less than the food of God, and that as its flesh is consumed in flame it rises up in smoke as a pleasing odor before the Lord. Others have suggested that the very innocence of the animals offered up allows their sacrifice to serve as a meeting point between man and the divine, and that this is why predatory or unclean animals are never offered up. Still others assert that the animal itself is virtually irrelevant, but what really counts is its blood which, as the most potent and concentrated form of life, is necessary to cleanse the sanctuary of the taint of death generated by the sins of the people. In any case, if one thing is certain it’s that no one ever thought to consult the animals in question. Our willingness to be sacrificed, or at least our powerlessness to resist, is taken as a given.

My brother and I knew nothing of these things as we were loaded into a cart and set out on the long journey up to Jerusalem. Idly we munched on our fodder and watched the landscape slowly rumble past, completely ignorant of our fate or of the weighty significance that was to be placed, for a short time, between the horns of two simple goats. The road was hot and dusty and the wagon wheels creaked incessantly as we trundled along. The priests rode along in silence, mostly, maybe preoccupied with thoughts of sins to be atoned for in the solemn days ahead, maybe just tired of the journey and daydreaming of the comforts of home. The temple functionaries who accompanied them talked among themselves, occasionally breaking into snatches of song. First one would start and then others would join in, their voices harmonizing with the ease of long practice, sending the cliffs ringing all around us as the psalm rose heavenward.

The road wound steadily upward though the rocky hills of Judea. Occasionally we would pass a herd of goats grazing on the hillsides and my brother and I would lift up our voices in our own imitation of the Levites’ song, calling out to the strangers. Every so often one of them would raise their head and bleat in response, but for the most part they carried on grazing, unconcerned with what happened to a couple of goats from a different herd. At last, after hours of travelling without any change to break the monotony, we came around a bend and there looking down on us was the city, its walls shining golden in the rays of the setting sun.

Shiluach ha-Ken

If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life. (Deut. 22:6-7)

How often do you actually come upon a mother bird in its nest?

How often do you actually come upon a mother bird in its nest?

I was looking out the sliding door to our porch the other day and found that a mourning dove had built a nest in the basket of Emily’s bike and was sitting there on top of her rather scruffy-looking offspring. This probably says something troubling about the extent to which we make use of our bicycles, or our porch for that matter. That said, it made me think of this passage from the Torah and the mitzvah of shiluach ha-ken, or sending away the mother bird.

What I find noteworthy about this passage, and about similar commandments throughout the Torah (such as the mitzvah of not yoking an ox alongside an ass, or sacrificing a mother animal and her offspring on the same day) is the way they seem to to give us grounds for questioning the somewhat simplistic criticism of Judaism and its sister faiths that they presume a worldview in which humans are essentially cut off from nature, existing in a completely separate ethical sphere from the rest of God’s creations.

The criticism stems at least in part from the famous passage in the first chapter of Genesis in which God commands the humans to “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.” (Gen. 1:28) The argument is that the biblical mindset regards humans as different in kind from the rest of created nature, set over and apart from the natural world. Where other faith traditions (the animistic practices of indigenous peoples are often mentioned in this context, as, for different reasons, is Buddhism) emphasize a continuity between humanity and the rest of the natural world, the overarching tendency within the Abrahamic faiths has been to establish a radical discontinuity between human beings and the rest of creation, grounded in a transcendent spiritual order in which animals, plants etc. do not participate.

I will not go so far as to argue that this point of view is entirely without basis in the tradition. Certainly Biblical Male and Female commanded by God to “fill the earth and master it” have a different attitude toward nature from that of the animist who looks to plants, animals and the earth itself as sources of spiritual insight. Nevertheless, I would argue that biblical commandments such as shiluach ha-ken and the rabbinical discourse concerning the ethical treatment of animals that develops out of them point to a sense in which humans and animals are seen to share certain important qualities in common which open up the possibility of an ethical responsibility grounded in our shared susceptibility to pain, disease, fear and all the host of other manifestations of the pathos of living as an embodied, sentient being in a world haunted by the specter of death.

Articulating a consistent, authentically Jewish theory of the relationship between humans and nature is the work of an entire book (or several). Nevertheless, I think it’s important to at least acknowledge that a worldview that sees the natural world as essentially the responsibility of humankind (and I feel like I’m in good company arguing that this is an interpretation consistent with the biblical understanding of possession) is not necessarily inconsistent with a recognition of important bonds of commonality between us and our fellow creatures that create a shared ethical space within which it is possible to talk about our obligations toward other species.

As for the mourning dove and her offspring in the bicycle basket, I’m afraid that when I opened up the door the next day to bring outside a mint plant which I’d received as a present, they both got nervous and fluttered away. I’m left feeling a little bad for having bothered them, and hoping that the mother, at least, turned out alright.