Last week’s double portion of Torah was Acharei/Kedoshim. This double portion is the beginning of the Holiness Code, the section of Leviticus that legislates the ins and outs of ritual purity for the Israelite camp. This stuff can be quite interesting, as the lines of purity and impurity are drawn very starkly. This impurity, too, is contagious – coming into another Israelite that had contracted ritual impurity gave the contactee the same impurity. One can imagine some kind of ancient OCD taking hold of these Israelites fearing possible impurity, and constantly making the sacrifices necessary to cleanse themselves of these missteps.
One of the most interesting parts of the parshat, though, comes before the holiness code begins. In chapter 16 of Leviticus, there is a segment laying out the ritual central to what was the Yom Kippur of the time. This ritual involved two goats. One was to become a sacrifice to God, the other was to be marked for Azazel. There is a lot of debate over who or what Azazel was. Although it’s relatively interesting, I think most people would accept that whatever Azazel is, it is not God. In fact, it might not be too big of a leap from the context to state that it is the opposite of whatever God is. But Azazel is only one of the strange mysteries involved in this ritual.
The part that is of the most interest to me is the man who is supposed to deal with this whole ritual. Ish iti, usually translated as “the designated man,” is an interesting individual in this whole performative drama. Aaron, the high priest, would lay his hands on the goat set for Azazel and confess the sins of the entire people of Israel, and then this “designated man” would be tasked to walk the goat out into the wilderness. The man would then come back, be ritually cleansed, and rejoin the camp. But who was this designated man? And why did he need to lead the goat out?
I think this ritual is interesting for many reasons. The ish iti is central to it, but little is said about him. I’m going to attempt to not bore anyone who has enough kindness in their heart to have read this far with too much Hebrew grammar the word “iti” doesn’t appear anywhere else in the entirety of the Hebrew Bible. It clearly comes from the word “eit,” which has to do with time and timing, and has the suffix “i” which is similar to the English suffix “-ish” or “-ly.” So, Robert Alter translates ish iti as “the timely man.” This doesn’t get us any closer to figuring out what the hell this guy was, though.
It seems strange that in a section of the Torah so deeply laden with specificity that the ritual laid out as arguably the most important of the year would have such a clear loose end. Maybe it wasn’t important who he was? Was it just some guy that got chosen at random from the camp? I don’t think so. I think that the use of the word “iti” here, as the use of any hapax usually does, points to it having a pretty special meaning.
Now, of what relevance is this ritual to us today? We don’t do it anymore (some haredim do something similar, in which they ritually abuse a chicken to do away with their sins), and we have our own Yom Kippur rituals. But I am a firm believer that everything in the Torah is pointing to something worthwhile, even if it is something that is only worthwhile to disagree with. If we look at this ritual as the goat, which symbolizes the sum total of the sins of the Israelite people for the year, being led out into the wilderness, we are given three objects to work with: The goat, or the sins, the special man, and the wilderness.
Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the special individuals are always plunged into the wilderness. Adam, Abraham and Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Joseph, Moses (with the entirety of the Israelite people!), just to name a few. The wilderness is a space that every great leader of the Israelite people had to venture through, usually in times of great trouble, to become the person they were bound to become. This theme is a clear key to heroism in the Tanach, but leads us down a very interesting path if investigated.
The wilderness, in many ways, represents disorder and chaos within the cosmology of the Hebrew Bible. It is the untamed place, the place where one can both encounter God, but also encounter great danger. It is the forge of greatness throughout the narrative of the Jewish people, a place of trial by fire. But this disorder and chaos, like Azazel, is actually the antithesis of the God of the Torah. The first thing we see in the Tanach is God creating the earth and the heavens, which is initially in a state of tohu va vohu, chaos and void of form. Then, through language, God orders the cosmos to his will, calling each piece good when it is in order. In spite of this ordering of the cosmos, chaos and disorder still exist in God’s creation. The nation of Israel is, in essence, supposed to be another ordering element within this creation. But this nation, too, needs individual humans deeply in touch with God, or order, to help face down the chaos and lead them towards a higher order.
The wilderness is then a testing ground for the special individual. Given this understanding of the relationship between order and chaos, and God and the wilderness, why then is the wilderness where both heroes go to be have their closest contact with God, and why is the goat of sin sent there as a way to purge the nation of Israel of their sin? God’s relationship to tohu va vohu at the beginning of Genesis helps us to understand this. Not only is chaos antithetical to God’s nature, but it is also the raw materials with which God can enact God’s will. Within these areas of chaos, God’s will can be seen most manifest because this is exactly where it can affect the most change. This is equally true of those heroes in our history who were given direct commissions by God. And maybe this is the key to the ish iti.
One of the questions the kids I teach ask most often is why God doesn’t speak directly to humanity like he did in the Tanach. Why aren’t there prophets? Why doesn’t God speak to them in the way that he did to Abraham and Moses? My usual answer is that we are just spoken to in different ways now, one of which is through the Torah. I think that the fact that we don’t need someone to walk the goat out into the wilderness to purge us of sin on Yom Kippur is relevant to this question. We no longer have the Tabernacle and Ark of the Covenant. We no longer have a priesthood, or a prophet to speak God’s word to us.
I think that it’s pretty clear given our current cultural circumstances that we’re not going to get an individual ish iti to come and purge us all of sin. During the Exodus the Israelites lived as one group wandering through the desert. Having one person tasked with this job for the physically collected nation made sense. Each individual within the nation could be present to witness the head priest perform the ritual over the individual goat, and watch the ish iti take the goat out into the wilderness. The far flung remnants of Israel today, present in almost every country in the world, are both deeply connected and deeply disconnected. We no longer have this kind of powerful top down organization to hold us together ritually. It is necessary that our interconnection be accepted as no longer physical, just as we no longer have a physical priesthood, Temple, or prophet. This lack of physicality leads to a much greater perception of chaos in our culture and lives. Without these physical guideposts to give us the clarity of order many struggle to find any relevance in our tradition at all.
A wise Jew once said that with great power comes great responsibility. In the wildly literate and self empowered society that we live in it is our responsibility to each be an ish iti. In this way the winding paths of history have flipped our entire cultural power structure on its head. Just like the singular ish iti who must venture out into the great impurity of the wilderness to cleanse the whole of Israel, we each take the risks and make the hard decisions which may sometimes miss their mark as we try to inject order into the chaos around us. Unlike the ish iti who had to cleanse himself to rejoin the community, we all join together on Yom Kippur to confess sins as a whole. On this day, we confess even those sins that we may not have committed personally. In this way, we cleanse ourselves as a whole community, mixing our impurity together and purging it through the liturgy and the ritual of the day.
I believe that this flipping of structure says a lot about the place of Judaism and religion today. In particular, the way we practice Yom Kippur stands as a symbol for the way we must accept our individual responsibility in our day to day lives. On our holiest of days we are one community again, and judged as such. On every other day, though, it is our job to be the ish iti, a product of our space and time, and one who must navigate the ever increasing chaos of our world as a figure attempting to locate and create peace and order for everyone.