Two goats teach central lesson of Yom Kippur

Rabbi Hyim Shafner serves Congregation Bais Abraham in University City and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.



In ancient times Yom Kippur was quite a different experience than it is for us today.  The entire Jewish people would gather at the Temple in Jerusalem to watch and listen as the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, performed the Temple service, and on this one day a year entered the Holy of Holies to pronounce the ineffable, secret name of G-d and to atone for the Jewish people through a very exacting and detailed sacrificial service that is described in chapter 16 of the Biblical book of Leviticus.

The most central part of the Temple Yom Kippur service involved bringing two identical goats which had been bought at the same time, for the same price, to the Temple in Jerusalem. The High Priest then reached into a container with two identical lots and randomly cast them upon the two goats. Upon one lot was written, “For the Lord,” and on the other, “For Azazel,” which roughly translates as “for the wilderness,” or “for naught.”

Following this lottery the goat upon which the lot for G-d fell was sacrificed and its blood sprinkled in the holiest place, the Holy of Holies. Then the goat upon which the lot for Azazel fell would be led, in a truly strange, seemingly un-Jewish act of wanton destruction, into the desert wilderness and pushed off a cliff to its death. Two identical goats, one no more deserving than the other, no more holy, no more attractive, but with diametrically opposite ends.

This service almost seems as if, G-d forbid, it were engineered by a cynic, mocking G-d and us, and the world G-d created, by attempting to highlight, though an eccentric act of performance art, the seemingly banal randomness of good and evil, the seemingly arbitrary meaninglessness of life, human will, choice, destiny and purpose. Though exactly the same, one goat is randomly chosen for G-d, for holiness, for a sacrifice in the holiest place, and one is chosen to be thrown off a forsaken cliff in a barren desert, alone, witnessed by no one, not even by its executioner, who had to turn his back to push it off the cliff to its death.

Why is such a thing performed?  How in the world does such a ceremony so seemingly cruel in its randomness bring atonement for the Jewish people? Indeed it seems to fly in the face of everything we believe in and hold sacred.

In fact, I think the message of the two goats is a profoundly important one, and central to Yom Kippur.  Imagine for a moment that you are one of these two goats in holy Temple, destined for, you assume, a Temple sacrifice.  Then your fellow goat is randomly chosen in a lottery, “for G-d,” for the altar.  You watch as your twin is led to the ritual slaughter.  You are relieved; you are led out of the Temple, you imagine, to freedom, you are calm and smug, only to be thrown from a cliff in the wilderness, in a Jewish ritual act unprecedented throughout the year.

In the end both goats die, much like it is in human life, often seemingly randomly.  What matters though is which has lived the nobler life.  This is the lesson of the goats and the lesson of the tishuvah (return and repentance) process we are engaged in on Yom Kippur.  Not to escape death for another year, not to pray for a physically good year, but to live what we have “for G-d” and not “for Azazel.”

Often we wish to escape from responsibility into an imagined freedom.  But in this world in which we have no control, and control over or freedom from life or from death, is an illusion.  What we can do is aim, within all the seeming randomness of our universe, to live a life of holiness and meaning.  A life, “for G-d,” and not for “Azazel,” “for naught.”   Yom Kippur and the process of tishuvah can not help us to control the coming year, but it can help our life and our inevitable death, be on the holy Jewish altar and not in some forsaken, spiritual desert.  

If we understand the message of the two goats, then indeed they can serve as atonement for us.  If not, then it is just another Yom Kippur spent to assuage our guilt, and whose temporary inspiration will erode by Chanukah.