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Acharei Mos: Grizzlies, Goats, and States of Mind

Imagine that you are on a hike, enjoying the beautiful scenery, breathing in the fresh mountain air, basking in the golden sunlight filtering in through the trees. Quite suddenly, you become aware of the sounds of breaking branches, rustling leaves, and heavy footfalls. Hurdling down the path toward you is a giant grizzly bear. What do you do? The answer is pretty much universal: you will either freeze, terrified, or flee, equally terrified. This automatic reaction is driven not by logic or reason, but by pure emotion – when we are in danger, we act instinctively out of fear, until we can get to safety.

Now imagine that you tried to tackle this grizzly problem from a stance of rational, logical thinking. Seeing the bear lumbering toward you, you make some calculations based on the weight of the bear, the elevation of the mountain path, the velocity of the wind gusts. By the time you even think the word “velocity,” you’re grizzly bear trail mix.

Now consider that, instead of a grizzly on a hiking trail, the problem you are encountering is a malignant tumor, and you are the surgeon operating to remove it. In that operating room, you best hope that cool, rational thinking reigns. Many people are of the mistaken notion that emotions are dangerous, represent weakness and lack of control, and must be subdued by logical thinking. And while it is true that sometimes acting on our emotions can be destructive, it is also true that there are times when cool, rational thinking just doesn’t have a place. At the same time, operating only from a place of emotions can have dire consequences. What is the Torah approach to emotional versus rational processing?

In this week’s Parsha, we read about the Yom Kippur Avodah. The Pasuk (Vayikra 16:7-10) describes the Kohen Gadol’s instructions to take two goats and cast a lottery. One goat is sacrificed on the Mizbeach “for Hashem,” and the other is to be brought into the dessert, and eventually tossed off a cliff, “for Azazel.” What is the purpose of this enigmatic yet essential ritual? Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks compares these two goats to Eisav and Yaakov. He explains that these two goats remind us of the two goats that Rivka commands Yaakov to hunt and prepare for Yitzchak in order to receive the Brachos. Also, the word “se’ir,” which means goat, is similar to the word “sei’ar,” which means hairy, and is used as a reference to Eisav. Additionally, a red string is tied around the goat for Azazel, reminding us of Eisav, who is called “edom,” or red. Lastly, Azazel is another name for Samael, the guardian angel of Eisav who famously fought with Yaakov by the riverbank.

Rav Shlomo Wolbe, in his sefer Olam HaYedidus (also known as Bein Shisha L’Asor) describes that human beings are comprised of two parts, a body and a soul. The body is like a child, short-term oriented, driven by emotions and physical desires, wanting what it wants, here and now. The soul, by contrast, is long-term focused, reaching higher, growth oriented, impervious to physical drives, always seeking to move. The body wants to be comfortable; the soul wants to be accomplished. In psychological terms, these two entities represent two states of mind in which a person can find him or herself: there is reasonable mind, which is cool, rational, and logical, and there is emotion mind, which is hot and emotion driven. Eisav is impulsive, hotheaded, and emotion-driven, renouncing the Bechorah for a bowl of hot soup, boiling with murderous rage at Yaakov. Eisav is focused on short-term gains, on the here and now. Eisav represents the psychological world of emotional reasoning. Do first, because I want to, and think later. In spiritual terms, Eisav represents the body, in its rawest form, without the influence of the soul. Yaakov, by contrast, is rational, logical, driven by reason; he is content to wait seven years for Rachel, and then another seven years, because he is thinking long-term, and not distracted by in-the-moment desires or impulses. Yaakov, in many ways, is all soul, without accounting for the body. Yaakov operates from reasonable mind. Let us consider: what is the best way to serve God? We are clearly commanded to serve God out of joy (“ivdu es Hashem biSimcha), out of fear (“V’Yareisa Mei’Elokecha”), and out of love (“V’Ahavta es Hashem Elokecha”). At the same time, we know that it is crucial to do Mitzvos not because we feel like it, or because the Mitzvos are all enjoyable and comfortable (they’re not), but because God said so. Our commandments involve separation and holiness, but they also involve physicality and material pursuits (think: 4 glasses of wine at the Pesach Seder). Is Judaism rational? Is it emotional?

If you’ve been paying attention until now, you know that the answer is: both. True Avodas Hashem is the synthesis of both emotions and logic. It is the joining of body and soul, the coming together of the physical and spiritual. We do the Mitzvos when we are commanded, and we also perform them with love, awe, and joy. This is what it means to be in a state of connection, to operate from wise mind, rather than from reasonable or emotion mind alone.

Sin is the breakdown of connection between body and soul, the polarization of emotions or logic, one trying to overtake the other. Usually, if we have erred, it is because we were operating entirely from emotion mind. On Yom Kippur, the Azazel, representing the world of Eisav, of hot-headed, impulsive, emotional reasoning, is cast away, symbolizing a casting off of our impulsive, body-driven sins. Yom Kippur is the only day in the entire year that we operate purely from the place of the soul. On Yom Kippur, we disregard our bodies almost entirely, and we act like angels. The Azazel is a wake-up call, a reminder that while the body is critical to Avodas Hashem, (in fact we cannot perform the majority of the Mitzvos without it!), and while emotions are necessary and crucial, at the same time if we are operating only based on what our bodies want, if we are only emotion-driven, we are likely to make mistakes. The purpose of throwing the Azazel off the cliff in the desert is not to tell us that we ought to do away entirely with emotional reasoning; rather, we are meant to be jarred into reflecting, ‘have I been making an effort to have my body and soul operate together? Have I been making decisions from wise mind, or only from emotion mind?’ Although every other day of the year we require both, on Yom Kippur we literally toss the physical, material, impetuous emotion mind off a cliff, not because we do not need it, but because on this ONE day, we are meant to consider, have I appreciated the importance of using my emotions and my logic together to make the best decisions for myself and others? One day a year, we are like angels, who do things purely because they were commanded; but the rest of the year, we have the privilege to be humans, who get to choose to operate from our inherent wisdom, who have the opportunity to fuse body and soul together in our Avodas Hashem.

With Pesach just barely a week behind us, Yom Kippur likely seems quite far away. Reading about the Azazel this week is a golden opportunity to stop and reflect, to capitalize on the time we have in the next few months to operate from that place of connection, to find the synthesis between emotional and logical reasoning, and to infuse our relationships, our work, and our Avodas Hashem with true connection.

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