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Dispatching the Goat

By Rabbi Avi Shafran

One of the most remarkable elements of Yom Kippur in ancient times, when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, was the ritual of “the Two Goats.”

Two indistinguishable members of that species were brought before the High Priest, who placed a randomly-pulled lot on the head of each animal. One lot read “to G-d” and the other “to Azazel” – the name of a steep cliff in a barren desert.

As the Torah prescribes, the first goat was solemnly sacrificed in the Temple, attention given to every detail of the offering; the second was taken to the cliff and thrown off, dying unceremoniously before even reaching the bottom.

Some moderns might find the fates of both goats troubling, but there are depths to Jewish rituals of which they don’t dream.

I lay no claim to conversance with those truly deep meanings. But pondering the “two goats” ritual before Yom Kippur (and anticipating its recollection during the day’s prayer-service), a thought occurs, and it may bear particular import for our times.

There are two ways to view human life, as mutually exclusive as they are fundamental. Our existence is either a result of intent, or of accident. And a corollary follows directly: Either our lives are meaningful, or they are not.

If the roots of our existence ultimately lie in pure randomness, there can be no more meaning to good and bad actions than to good or bad movies; no more import to right and wrong than to right and left. Human beings remain but evolved animals, their Mother Theresas and Adolf Hitlers alike. To be sure, we might conceive a rationale for establishing societal norms, but a social contract is only a practical tool, not a moral imperative; it is, in the end, artificial. Only if there is a Creator in the larger picture can there be ultimate import to human life, placing it on a plane meaningfully above that of mosquitoes.

The Torah, of course, is based on the foundation – and in fact begins with an account – of a Divinely directed creation; and its most basic message is the meaningfulness of human life. Most of us harbor a similar, innate conviction.

Yet some resist that innate feeling, and adopt the perspective that what we can perceive with our physical senses is all that there is in the end. The apparent randomness of nature, in that approach, leaves no place for Divinity. It is not a difficult position to maintain; the Creator may be well evident to those of us primed to perceive Him, but He has not left clear fingerprints on His Creation.

Might those two diametric worldviews be somehow reflected in the Yom Kippur ritual?

The goat that becomes a sacrifice on the Temple altar might symbolize recognition of the idea that humans are beholden to something greater. And the counter-goat, which finds its fate in a desolate, unholy place, would then allude to the perspective of life as pointless, lacking higher purpose or meaning.

It’s not an unthinkable speculation, especially in light of how the Azazel-goat seems to be described by the Torah – so strangely – as carrying away the sins of the people.

The traditional Jewish commentaries all wonder at that concept. Some, including Maimonides, interpret it to mean that the people will be spurred by the dispatching of the Azazel-goat to repent.

If, indeed, the Azazel-goat alludes to the mindset of meaninglessness, we might approach an understanding of the inspiration born of its dispatching. The animal’s being “laden with the sins” of the people might refer to the recognition that sin stems from insufficient recognition of how meaningful in fact are our lives. The Talmudic rabbi Resh Lakish in fact said as much when he observed [Sotah 3a] that “A person does not sin unless a spirit of madness enters him.”

And so the sending off of the Azazel-goat could be seen as an acknowledgement of the idea that sin’s roots lie in the madness born of our self-doubt. And those who witnessed its dispatchment might well have been spurred by that thought to then turn and consider the other goat, the one sacrificed in dedication to G-d. So stirred on the holiest day of the Jewish year, they might then have been able to better commit themselves to re-embracing the grand meaningfulness that is a human life.

We may lack the Two Goats ritual today, but we can certainly try all the same to absorb that eternally timely thought.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

All Am Echad Resources essays are offered without charge for personal use, sharing and publication, provided the above copyright notice is appended. The above essay was first disseminated in 2005.

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