Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur
Type: Oil
Dimensions: Width/Height (in inches) 60/48
Year: 2003

This painting seeks to understand the transcendent message of Yom Kippur by fusing images derived from the critically illuminating Hebrew word “Goral” (“Lot”) found in both the Yom Kippur Torah reading from Leviticus XVI, and the Haftorah reading from the book of Jonah. The Torah describes the Yom Kippur ritual of taking two identical he-goats, and randomly assigning them “Lots”, one of which will say “Lahashem” ,” “to G-d”, and the other will say “LaAzazel”. The goat who is assigned “to G-d” is killed as a sin-offering. Aaron, the chief priest lays both his hands on the goat assigned to “Azazel”, thereby transmitting to the goat via hand laying, all the sins of Israel. The goat thus becomes a walking repository of all of Israel’s sins, a vestibule of concentrated evil so to speak i.e. a scapegoat. The goat is then sent to “eretz gezeyruh” (the wilderness, into the desert, land of edicts).

The term Azazel is mysterious. Many explanatory legends and midrashim have been offered throughout the ages. In the most secular sense, the word Azazel is almost identical to the Mesopotamian demon desert god “Pazuzu”. Bronze figurines of Pazuzu have been excavated, and reveal combined features of a winged monster lion/eagle. There are those who speculate that this Yom Kippur he-goat was sacrificed to a desert demon. Azazel by many Jewish scholars is simply interpreted as a desolate desert, in particular, a tall desert mountain from which the he-goat was hurled to his death. Whatever the definition, it is clear that Azazel, eretz gezira is a place of vast, de-populated, rocky and barren wilderness from which the exiled scapegoat and all of Israel’s deposited sins would never ever return.

We now turn to the tale of Jonah from the Haftorah Scripture. Jonah is instructed by G-d to go to Nineveh and instruct their inhabitants to repent their evil ways. Contrary to command, he boards a vessel to Tarshish. A great storm ensues. All the passengers draw lots and, “Vayipol hagoral al Yonah”, “and the lot fell on Jonah.” Jonah is then thrown overboard, and the storm dies down. G-d creates a “Dag Gadol,” a “big fish” who swallows Jonah. In the big fish’s belly (“betten” or “meaye”), Jonah prays and appeals to G-d. Upon G-d’s command Jonah is spit out by the big fish onto dry land, where he now follows G-d’s commands as required.

We now turn to the painting. Because both the he-goat and Jonah were assigned Lots, I have fused them into one image. The Jonah goat is seen being tossed down the mountain by the High priest. The Jonah goat is filled with sin. The creature has seven arms, and seven legs (including a tail) which signifies both rotatory falling movements, and the seven branches of the menorah. I have also fused the goat’s desert terrain and Jonah’s ocean into a vast landscape into which they were both thrown. Both the desert and the ocean are similar vast open spaces which bring death if one is totally immersed in them, or alternatively bring life if taken from one to the other.

Extending her hand and swallowing the Jonah goat is a fused image of Azazel and the big fish. (Dag Gadol). In Hebrew both these names have the same number of letters, and are phonetically and poetically homologous. This is a female creature. When describing this creature in the book of Jonah, two words are used for the creature’s belly, “betten”, and “meaye”. Both these terms in the Bible typically do not mean abdomen, they mean uterus. Both these terms were used to describe the uterine residence of two great nations, Yaakov and Esau, in Rebecca’s womb.

Written on each appendage of the Jonah goat are all the sins which we recite in the Yom Kippur prayers; “Ashamnu, bagadnu”, etc, in alphabetical order. Written on his genitals is “teavnu”, “we lusted”. Written on his abdomen is “vayipol hagoral”, using a pun that literally means the “lot is falling”i.e. tumbling down rather than the literal interpretation, “the lot fell on him”. Written on his horns are Jonah’s words “better for me to die than live” as he is entering the creature’s insides.

Portrayed in the translucent creature’s abdomen is the goat/Jonah’s decomposed skeleton. This represents that in the creature’s belly, the Jonah goat and the sins residing within him are destroyed. Written above and below this skeleton are the Aramaic words chanted on Yom Kippur that “our sins should be broken, negated, etc”. As we follow the story from left to right and up through the creature’s body to the tail, we see a fetal goat attached via an umbilical cord to the skeleton. This symbolizes a reborn/resurrected Jonah/goat arising from the dead skeleton remains. Above the fetus are the words of Jonah “and he answered me from the belly”. Above the fetus we see another swallowed fish within a swallowed fish. This fish is wearing a tallis and chanting the Kol Nidray prayers. At the upper end of the creature, close to the tail, are fetal twin he-goats, about to be expelled/birthed, to start the same cycle next year. The goat standing atop the cliff above the tail is the goral lahashem, the twin allotted for G-d, and the other twin, tumbling down is allotted for Azazel.

Because the words “betten” and “maye” were used for Rebecca’s womb, I have hypothesized that etymologically the word Azazel, is a combination of the twin names of “esav” and “yisrael”. By substituting the letter “Sin” (S) with “Zyin” (Z), ESAV becomes EZAV, and YASraeL becomes YAZraeL. EZAV + YAZEL= EZAZEL. In a sense, the history of Yaakov and Esau, the good son, and the bad son, is yet another telling of the same story of the twin goats, one sacrificed to God, and the other sacrificed to Azazel. . Likewise the Abraham and Ishmael story as well as the story of Cain and Abel are retold and re-played in the Yom Kippur ritual. They all emphasize the duality of the human spirit, and its indiscriminate capacity and potential for good and evil. This concept harks back to a deep primal grasp of life, destiny, fate and G-d; contemplative thoughts appropriate for the holiness and seriousness of Yom Kippur. Whether we get selected to live or die another year is as random a probability of one goat given the lot for death, and the other the lot for life. On top of the painting, are the words of prayer from the Yom Kippur Machzor, “and repentance, prayer and good deeds, eliminate the bad decrees.” I have combined the Hebrew words “roah hagzeyra” with “eretz hagezera”. The former is “the evil decree for punishment”, and the latter is “the land to which the scapegoat was sent”. Either way, we want to avoid both the evil decree and the evil desert land. Within the words on the right top of the painting are red colored letters spelling out the word G-d in Hebrew.