In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: Azazel
The winter was not unusually harsh in Vaysechvoos, yet somehow it was oppressive this particular year. In Plotznik, barely 30 kilometers away, if it was not snowing or raining, the sun would shine. But in Vaysechvoos, every day was overcast. It seemed like all the clouds had gathered around the little shtetl to stare down silently, as if they expected something of the villagers.
The citizens of Vaysechvoos never got depressed like other people. They were always a little depressed. Such a life as they led was saddening. True, at weddings they were joyous and everybody laughed and danced and laughed again and told funny stories and there was great mirth. Still, if you asked how a person was feeling, the answer would be, “Not so terrible, thank God. Just a little low in spirit.”
Even at a joyous occasion, it would have been improper to live in a place like Vaysechvoos without being a little depressed. It would be a mockery of one’s own circumstances not to be depressed. Therefore, perpetual cloudiness would not depress the villagers, but the overcast days and starless nights left the people feeling distressed and, in some cases, a little cranky.
Beryl the Teamster looked up and admonished the clouds in a firm voice, “Either rain or go away, but it’s not proper for unwelcome clouds to hover.” When the clouds did not respond, Beryl said in an even louder voice, “Ha Shem, did you hear what I said?” Beryl wasn’t at all surprised when a lightning bolt hit the ground a short distance away, but no rain. “Alright already,” Beryl said, “I won’t be so rude in the future.”
Ida the Schreier (which means “the one who cries out”) considered herself a wise woman. Most agreed with her that she could speak a truth like a seer. “The Almighty is visiting a punishment upon us,” she pronounced. “Someone has committed a heinous sin that greatly offended the heavens. The clouds have gathered between the heavens and ourselves so that the Almighty will not look on our shame.”
The fact that the rabbi didn’t contradict Ida the Schreier seemed to give weight to her claim that some person (or persons) were very, very guilty. And unless the whole town did something about it, the Sun would never again shine on Vaysechvoos.
“Well, Rabbi, to you who has so many of the secrets of the universe told you by the Almighty himself, perhaps you can tell us why we have no sunshine, why every day is cloudy and why our families behave like caged wolves?”
The rabbi, who did know some of the secrets of the universe (or at least he thought he did), had no clue on this occasion. But knowing that Ida the Schreier was often right, he raised a single rabbinical finger skyward and in a solemn manner uttered the words, “it has been told you by a sister of this village that someone has sinned, and yet you wouldn’t believe her. The time has come for that person to repent.”
In this assessment the rabbi considered himself safe. Everyone needed to repent of something. If the sunless days continued, everyone–no matter how reluctant–would be forced to repent. But nobody was in a hurry to be the first to go to the fasting shed.
A few villagers even grumbled at the pronouncement, including the cranky Beryl. He looked the rabbi in the eye. “So, what about you? Could the sin be yours? Have you tasted of gentile food?”
To which the rabbi responded, “I’ve been all my life observant, but I promise I will search my very soul to see if there may be some hidden sin in me, and I would ask you, all of you, to do likewise.” Beryl was the first to nod, and all of the rest of the villagers nodded. They knew their duty.
No one came forward to throw themselves on the floor of the synagogue with tears of repentance the way that the Bible describes. First of all, there wasn’t that much room on the floor. Second, it had been centuries since anybody knew of any Jews prostrating themselves in such an extreme act of repentance.
Vaysechvoos repentance was like Vaysechvoos mirth: deeply felt, but expressed in a measured way. It was a feeling alongside other feelings. The children became more obedient to their parents and asked forgiveness for past misdeeds. The tradesmen and the merchants settled their bills quickly and for much less money and with much less haggling than they would usually have accepted from each other.
Nevertheless, despite the repentance, restitution and right living, the dark clouds continued to stare down. Mothers concerned for their children’s health urged long walks beyond the cloud-shrouded village so that they could get a little sunshine.
Once again, the “committee” of villagers (which consisted of nearly everyone who could speak, listen, read or write) confronted the rabbi. Beryl, who was the self-appointed spokesman, said, “We did enough teshuvah for a year of Yom Kippurs.” And then he pointed skyward and said, “Look!”
In order to be helpful, the rabbi looked up as if he didn’t know what Beryl was pointing to and said, “Yes?” Then, in a brilliant stroke of understanding that comes only to rabbis, his mouth spoke even before the thought was completely formed. “I never said that the one who sinned was a human being. In our repentance together, Ha Shem has enlightened my sight.” The rabbi said no more.
The villagers were rustic but religiously well informed. They knew exactly what the rabbi meant: an angel had fallen into Vaysechvoos. And because the angel, who had sinned, was a spiritual being that once beheld the face of the Almighty, all goodness within that being got reversed so that it had become a demon.
All of Vaysechvoos knew what to do. The people took the three scrolls from the synagogue and uncovered them–for to uncover the Scriptures was to let the King of Heaven be seen. The men of the village then held the holy books aloft as they chanted their prayers with fervor, moving from one part of the shtetl to another.
Even the domestic animals were struck silent with awe at this solemn ceremony. No cow lowed, nor did a horse whinny. The hens stopped clucking and all the animals stood transfixed. Until the men came around the corner and were confronted by a goat–no one’s goat. Everyone had seen the goat and thought it belonged to someone else. And in the moment that the goat scampered away, they, realized that it was an unknown, unowned and unwanted goat. They marched back to the synagogue and continued their prayers. Then Nahum the tanner’s son, who was one of the fastest runners, was appointed to catch the goat.
Suddenly there was heard something strange in the village. All the men began whistling wedding melodies, for everyone knew that to whistle was to summon a demon and that with all the pious men whistling, the demon would be confused.
And sure enough it happened that way. Nahum caught the goat, bound its feet together and carried it to the place where all the villagers were waiting. This was one frightened looking goat! The men stopped whistling and the goat stopped twitching. But then to make sure, they brought out the Torah scrolls, opening them before the strange goat. With demonic strength, the animal struggled to break the binding cords. But the tanner’s son had been careful to say the Sh’ma as he tied the knots, so the cord could not be broken by demonic strength.
The scrolls were returned to the ark. Without instruction, each person in the village knew what to do next. They went to the goat, now laid upon the table, and put their hands on the goat’s head and audibly pronounced the name, “Azazel.” Then, they silently confessed their own sins of which they had repented. No adult failed to do this.
And then the goat named Azazel was cast into the back of Beryl’s wagon as Beryl prepared himself for a long journey. The teamster traveled for many days beneath a constant cloud canopy. Finally he released Azazel in the woods where there were known to be hungry wolves. And then he returned home to his beloved Vaysechvoos, which had once again become a sunny, smiling shtetl.
Director of Communications, Missionary
Susan Perlman is one of the co-founders of Jews for Jesus. Susan is the associate executive director of Jews for Jesus and also director of communications for the organization. She also serves as the editor in chief of ISSUES, their evangelistic publication for Jewish seekers. She left a career track in New York City to help launch Jews for Jesus in San Francisco in the early 1970s. See more here.