Torah Ecology: Achrei Mot-Kedoshim (Lev 16:1-18:30, 19:1-20:27)

If the first three chapters of Genesis set out the framework for the Torah project, Leviticus 16 forms its narrative heart. Positioned between the Purity Code and the Holiness Code, it ties together two parts of a central Torah concept in a dramatic Day of Atonement ritual of two goats, one for the Lord and one for Azazel.

In this way, Leviticus is the center of the narrative structure of the Torah. This narrative, beginning in the Garden account of Genesis, lays out a theology and an ontology and details the relationships between G-d, creation and human beings. It teaches how human beings, body and soul inextricably linked, can navigate through the real world and come close to G-d.

In the Garden story, the biblical text provides this theology and anthropology in the symbolism of the two trees. Leviticus actualizes the story in real life beyond the Garden through ritual (purity) and ethical (holiness) codes, the first governing the relationship between G-d and human beings, the second among human beings. In the Day of Atonement ritual, a carefully orchestrated series of events culminates in a two-goat rite. The first is for the Lord, sacrificed on the altar, the second for Azazel, sent alive into “the solitary place.” The first goat removes ritual sins, sins against G-d, while the second removes ethical sins, sins against one’s fellow human being, sins that destroy community.


Leviticus actualizes the creation stories of the first three chapters of Genesis. The Garden story tells us of two trees, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the center of the Garden, indeed in the center of the story, the other the Tree of Life.  These two trees describe a theology and an ontology, answering questions about who God is, who the human being is, how they were intended to relate and how they do relate in an exilic world:  

And the Lord G-d said, “Now that humanity (ha-Adam) has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, what if he should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!”  So the Lord G-d banished him from the garden of Eden, to till the soil from which he was taken.  He drove the human out, and stationed east of the garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life.”

The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil represents a capacity for moral consciousness, which human beings share with G-d once they eat from that Tree. The Tree of Life represents a way in which the human being is radically different from G-d, namely s/he dies.  When the first humans eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the center of the Garden, they, and all of creation through them, are barred from the Tree of Life: “What if he should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!


From the last Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora, “what happened in the Garden changed the entire structure of creation forever. On one side of the act of eating from the Tree is a harmonious system of differences, a world in which all creatures live in harmony and there is no bloodshed and no death. On the other side is exile into a blood-soaked world, a world in which the most basic act of nourishing oneself requires taking life. Like blood that both purifies and generates impurity, eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is an ambivalent image of love and unself-conscious obedience vs. full consciousness and moral responsibility.

“Humanity made the choice for full responsibility, becoming G-d-like in that way. In the process of making that choice, however, they generated consequences for all of creation, and they bear responsibility for every death. The reminders of the human role in altering the nature of creation with consequences for everything in it are birth, death, menstruation, seminal emissions, and the strange organic decay, perhaps living death, associated with leprosy. Thus birth, death, disease, food and sexuality are the points at which human beings confront their responsibility in this radically altered world.”


Chapter 16 of Leviticus is a bridge:

  1. On one side of the bridge are the purity regulations, connected with the Tree of Life, that culminate in Tazria-Metzora. These purity regulations concern birth, death, menstruation, seminal emissions and leprosy, signifying that part of our ontology that is non-volitional and part of nature. In the body/soul equation, purity regulations have to do with our body. Blood generates impurity outside the ritual frame in its association with death and violence — and inside the ritual frame purifies and atones. For the purpose of “drawing near” to G-d, a person engages in a set of rituals to separate from impurity, that characteristic which defines us as part of the created world.
  2. On the other side of the Chapter 16 bridge at the beginning of Acharei Mot-Kedoshim are the holiness regulations, matters of choice (volitional) and therefore of morality. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil represents these regulations. Holiness regulations have to do with our “soul.”

If we consider that all death is brutal, that no healthy creature seeks or wants death, the Purity Code reminds us that we are part of a world at once both beautiful and brutal. The Garden story tells us that as conscious, decision-making beings, we are responsible and enmeshed in guilt: “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked…” (Gen. 3:7).  From last week’s portion, “Tazria-Metzora forces us to stop and consider an inescapable brutality at the core of life…”

The Purity Code requires the Holiness Code that follows chapter 16, which “reminds us of the moral demand that we do what we can to make life a little less brutal.” Through our moral choices, a decision-making capacity we have as humans that is represented in the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, we have a G-d-like ability, and we must exercise it.

Failing to follow the commandments of the Holiness Code, whose driving purpose is to reduce the brutality of our existence and give it meaning, neglects our G-d-like nature for which we paid so dearly. We are then wholly driven by nature and instinct. Even moments of love and compassion or our vaunted human intelligence do not distinguish us from animals who also feel love and compassion and are also intelligent.

The purity regulations and the holiness regulations are clearly different in kind but, like body and soul, inextricably linked.


This week’s Torah portion, again a double portion, begins with Chapter 16 of Leviticus. This chapter contains the very strange episode of the goat for Azazel. Volumes have been written attempting to understand the meaning of these passages and who or what, exactly Azazel is. I’m going to bypass all of that and just try to focus on what the words in front of me seem to convey.

The portion begins with a reference to a story told in Lev. 10. In that story, Nadav and Abihu, the two sons of Aaron, die when they offer “strange fire” at the altar in what was otherwise a supreme moment for the Aaronides in the newly built Tabernacle.  The reference accompanies a reminder of the danger in “coming close” to G-d, offering sacrifices (korbanot, sacrifices, means coming close): “Speak unto Aaron thy brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place within the veil, before the ark-cover which is upon the ark; that he die not; for I appear in the cloud upon the ark-cover.” (Lev. 16:2)

Forewarned how important it is to follow the purification rituals, an elaborate series of preparations involving bathing in water and changing clothes leads into the first round of sacrifices. A second series of preparations follows those sacrifices, leading into the second round. Between the sin offerings and the burnt offerings, the goat for Azazel is sent into the wilderness, to “a land that is cut off” (I think a closer translation is “solitary” or “separated”).


16:3: Aaron is to bring a young bullock for a sin-offering and a ram for a burnt-offering. He kills the bullock of the sin-offering to make atonement for himself and his house and purifies the ark cover with its blood.

16:5: Aaron is to take two he-goats for a sin-offering and a ram for a burnt-offering on behalf of the Israelites. He takes the Israelites’ 2 he-goats and sets them before the Lord at the Tent of Meeting. Lots are cast on the 2 goats, “one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for Azazel.” The goat for the Lord is a sin-offering, which Aaron kills “for the people,” bringing its blood to sprinkle on and before the ark cover as he did with the blood of the bullock.

16:16: Having made atonement for himself and his house and for the people of Israel, Aaron then makes atonement for the holy place (the Tabernacle) because of their (the people of Israel) impurity and transgressions: “and so shall he do for the tent of meeting, that dwelleth with them in the midst of their impurities” (הַשֹּׁכֵן אִתָּם). A curious statement, that the Tabernacle “lives” with the people of Israel in this sea of impurities.

16:20: When Aaron finishes atoning for the “holy place” and the Tent of Meeting and the altar, he deals with the other goat, the goat for Azazel:

“And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, even all their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of an appointed man into the wilderness.” (וְסָמַךְ אַהֲרֹן אֶת-שְׁתֵּי יָדָו, עַל רֹאשׁ הַשָּׂעִיר הַחַי, וְהִתְוַדָּה עָלָיו אֶת-כָּל-עֲו‍ֹנֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאֶת-כָּל-פִּשְׁעֵיהֶם לְכָל-חַטֹּאתָם; וְנָתַן אֹתָם עַל-רֹאשׁ הַשָּׂעִיר, וְשִׁלַּח בְּיַד-אִישׁ עִתִּי הַמִּדְבָּרָה).

“And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land which is cut off; and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.” (וְנָשָׂא הַשָּׂעִיר עָלָיו אֶת-כָּל-עֲו‍ֹנֹתָם, אֶל-אֶרֶץ גְּזֵרָה; וְשִׁלַּח אֶת-הַשָּׂעִיר, בַּמִּדְבָּר).

16:23-24: The burnt offerings require another change of clothing and more bathing, after which Aaron sacrifices the two rams and makes the fat of the sin-offering smoke on the altar. The burnt offerings “make atonement for himself (Aaron) and for the people.”

Just to recount: Aaron bathes and changes his garments, then kills the bullock of the sin-offering to make atonement for himself and his house. He kills the goat for the Lord, a sin-offering on behalf of the people of Israel. He atones for and purifies the ark cover, the Holy of Holies, the altar and the Tent of Meeting. He places the sins of the community on the head of the goat for Azazel and dispatches him to the “solitary” place, then changes his garments and bathes again. He sacrifices the burnt offering and makes “atonement for himself, and for his household, and for all the assembly of Israel” and makes smoke on the altar from the fat of the sin-offering. Finally, we have wrap-up activities, removing the remains of the sin-offerings outside the camp. Those who let the goat for Azazel go and who burn the remains of the offerings wash their clothes, bathe and return to the camp.


What is going on here? Multiple purifications, multiple atonements, multiple sin-offerings. Shouldn’t one be enough? Why the goat for Azazel? And for what do the burnt offerings atone after all the sin-offerings and purifications and sending away the goat with all the sins of the community on its head?

Lev. 16:17 provides a clue. This verse tells us “there shall be no man in the tent of meeting when he (Aaron) goeth in to make atonement in the holy place, until he come out, and have made atonement for himself, and for his household, and for all the assembly of Israel.” This suggests a total house-cleaning, but in this case, impurities and sin are swept out the door before any can re-enter. The priests’ job is to clean the house, preparing it as a place for G-d and Israel to meet.

Impurity is tangible, and sin, when it enters the world, has body. Once atonement is offered and the meeting place for the divine-human encounter purified, the now lifeless impurities and sins must be removed like the skins and flesh and dung of the sin-offerings (the bullock and goat) when they are taken outside the camp and burned (Lev. 16:26). The sins on the head of the goat for Azazel parallel the lifeless remains of the sacrificial animals. The ritual parallels confirm this idea as both he who lets the goat for Azazel go and he who burns the impure remains of the sin-offering outside the camp wash their clothes and bathe before returning to the camp.

In another parallel, the goat for Azazel that carries away the moral sins of the community corresponds to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil while the goat for the Lord that purifies the Israelites and the Tabernacle corresponds to the Tree of Life.

Only when this lifeless refuse exits the camp can Aaron “offer his burnt-offering and the burnt-offering of the people,” completing the atonement process for himself and the people.

There is one more clue to what is happening, and this brings us full circle to the two trees and the associated holiness and purity themes. Lev. 16:16 describes the atonement in dual terms: “he shall make atonement for the holy place, because of the impurities of the children of Israel, and because of their…sins; and so shall he do for the tent of meeting, that dwelleth with them in the midst of their impurities.” Lev. 16:19 refers solely to impurity:  “And he shall sprinkle of the blood upon it with his finger seven times, and purify it, and hallow it from the impurities of the children of Israel.”

Impurity is never used to describe the sins the goat carries out of the camp into the wilderness, only three words which do not typically refer to impurity but rather to moral misconduct: “And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, even all their sins.

We read the dual terminology only one more time, and this is in a wrap-up passage describing the meaning of the whole occasion: “For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to purify you; from all your sins shall ye be pure before the LORD.” (Lev. 16:30)

This is what I read in Chapter 16 and why I place it at the center of the Torah: the first round of offerings, the bullock for Aaron and the goat for the Israelites, atone and serve to remove impurities from the environment and temporarily from Aaron and the Israelites so they may “draw near” to G-d. The remains of the sacrificial animals bearing impurities are removed from the camp and burned.

Similarly, the goat for Azazel carries the lifeless bodies of moral infractions, sins, outside the camp into a place that is “solitary” or “separated.” These are acts that destroy community and must be removed from it.

Lev. 16:30 in summing up indicates that at this most holy moment, a total house-cleaning is accomplished, the lifeless shells of impurities and moral infractions are gone, Israel is both pure and holy, and Israel and G-d meet.

A question remains in my mind about the nature of impurity. I have said before that I think impurity is more an issue of definition than a moral category. Impurity describes the nature of the human being bound by nature. It is involuntary and is a function of having a body. It is a transitory state. Rituals separate a person from their impurity for the purpose of coming close to G-d. Why, then, does chapter 16 link it so inextricably to holiness, our moral consciousness, our soul?

I believe that the preceding portion, Tazria-Metzora, with its allusions to the creation story, provide us that answer. Impurity has an overarching moral dimension in that it is associated with the first humans’ “meal in the Garden,” as they thoughtlessly eat from the tree with no real consideration of consequences. In that moment, in altering the structure of creation, they catapult themselves, all those who follow, indeed all of creation, into a world that is not only beautiful and nourishing but brutal and deadly.

The only antidote to this condition, the only possible balance for the consequences of their action, is to extend the realm of holiness, of moral consciousness. In this way, impurity/our bodies and holiness/our souls are inextricably and eternally linked as we struggle to fulfill our nature.


Note: I have tried to stay away from homiletics and specific faith interpretations in these analyses and use “evidence” from within the text to try to understand what it wants to say. I want to diverge from that for a moment to comment from a personal perspective on these last two double portions, for me both fascinating and difficult.

I find myself understanding, for the first time in my life, something about the idea of “original sin” and how interpreters might derive such a concept from the text, that somehow, through our bodies, we are trapped in a cycle of sin. The allusions in Leviticus’ Purity Code to the Garden story of Genesis give me a glimpse of a biblical awareness of human responsibility for our condition, even guilt.

As I experiment with a vegan diet, I become aware that no matter what I do, I cannot disentangle myself from responsibility for death and destruction.  Perhaps it is a human conceit to imagine we can extract ourselves from that cycle.  Even someone who eats plants kills. How many habitats do we unknowingly destroy when we till the soil? How many creatures do we knowingly kill because if we didn’t, we’d never harvest a bite? I seem to remember Kafka wrote about this problem in Der Hunger Künstler.

Part of me thinks it’s a continuum. We each must find our place on the continuum of taking and nurturing, contributing to death and brutality and to beauty and life. Each of us is required to make value judgments and difficult moral decisions. Part of me appreciates how some find meaning in a religion that says someone paid the giant debt humanity owes, removing our “guilt.” And part of me appreciates my own religion that offers a path to navigate through the world as it is, keeping my sights set not on extracting myself but on being the best I can be and working to expand the realm of holiness.

These are things I think about as I read these blood-soaked passages of Leviticus. When I visualize the scene in the Tabernacle, terrified animals, the bleating and bellowing, the slaughter, the blood, the stench, I’m horrified, and I wonder, how could this possibly have meaning? Somehow it did, and somehow the meaning is communicated in these texts if you look closely. The text evidences an awareness of human responsibility, even guilt, an awareness of the profound paradox of life and the debt humanity owes for its privileged position. Somehow sacrifice in its time paid a portion of that debt and allowed the Israelites to come near to G-d.

I also think of 9 billion land animals bred in the U.S. each year just to kill for food and trillions of aquatic animals.  I think of how that happens with most of us not even knowing about it and if we know about it not really experiencing responsibility for the commercialization of life and the suffering and carnage and brutality we cause with what’s on our plates. Then I see us right back at the tree in the middle of the Garden, poised to eat without consciously pondering the awesome consequences for ourselves and the rest of creation when we take that bite.

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