In this week’s parsha the Torah teaches us that there are two living beings that carry the sins of Israel upon them on Yom Kippur – and through them comes expiation and forgiveness of sin to all of Israel. The first is the High Priest of Israel who is charged with the fulfillment of the ritual service in the Temple and the other is the scapegoat that will be thrust off of the cliff of Azazel carrying with it the sins of Israel.
Much has been written about these two creatures and their roles in the exalted Yom Kippur service. I think that one of the insights that may be gleaned from these differing forms of the ritual of achieving forgiveness for our sins lies in the stark contrast between the creatures.
Though they are both instrumental in fulfilling this role of mediating between God and us, the contrast between the High Priest of Israel and a goat is striking. One is the holiest and most exalted of humans, clad in white and devoted solely to purity and the other is a goat that was apparently chosen at random through a “lottery” to be the sacrificial animal, which possesses no human intelligence and spirit. What are we to make of this disparity of mediators between man and God? Perhaps we can understand the role of the High Priest in this spiritual drama but the role of the goat is certainly shrouded in mystery and wonder for us. The entire matter certainly demands thought, analysis and explanation
My insight is that the High Priest brings forgiveness to Israel through living – through a life of holiness and public service. The High Priest blesses the people and he is aware that he bears the responsibility for their behavior and is charged with being the proper role model for his fellow priests and for all of Israel generally.
It is not an easy task to live a holy life of spiritual example and leadership. We often think that sanctification of God’s name is a task that is beyond our meager talents and abilities. That is not true. The true sanctification of God’s name, the true struggle for holiness and forgiveness is accomplished in our daily living. It is accomplished in our relationship and treatment of others and in our constant struggle for personal self improvement.
The other method of bringing forgiveness, dying for a cause – is that of thrusting the goat off of the cliff of Azazel. Even though martyrdom has been an unfortunate staple of Jewish existence over the ages, it is certainly not the preferable method of sanctification of God’s name. And as the Holocaust abundantly proved it is not necessarily a voluntary, thought out, determined personal choice.
Like the goat of Azazel, it is often a dumb and involuntary choice, a random choice. And even though it also brings absolution for one’s and others’ sins, it is not the true fulfillment of the human part of seeking forgiveness. Apparently the scapegoat in terms of practicality is part of our lives as Jews but we should all at least attempt to emulate the High Priest.
Shabat shalom, Pesach kasher v’sameach
Rabbi Berel Wein
Rabbi Berel Wein- Jewish historian, author and international lecturer offers a complete selection of CDs, audio tapes, video tapes, DVDs, and books on Jewish history at www.rabbiwein.com