Live every day like it’s your last is a popular saying. The Talmud[i] makes a similar statement, but its concept of living life to the fullest is more sobering. The focus is on being mindful about the opportunities for repentance. This is because each day may be the last opportunity to repent and even on that last day, by repenting, a person can earn eternal life.
This notion may help explain one of the Bible’s most mysterious rituals, which is reported in this week’s Torah portion[ii] and is a central feature of the Yom Kippur service. It involves a pair of look-alike goats[iii], one of whom is sacrificed on the Temple Altar and the other is sent to ‘Azazel’, accompanied by an ‘Ish Iti’. What do these terms of art mean? Why the elaborate ceremony, in which lots were drawn by the Kohen Gadol, designating one goat to be offered on the Temple Altar and the other to be sent to Azazel? After all, despite the different destinations, both goats were, in effect, sin offerings slated to die that day; why should the one sent to Azazel be singled out as a so-called scapegoat?
It is suggested that the ritual has been mislabeled as the sacrifice of the scapegoat. This is because sins can’t be divested merely by transferring them to someone or something else. Each person is personally responsible for his or her own actions. Removing the stain of sin is a painstaking process. It requires introspection, recognition of our personal failings and genuine repentance. Absolution is not just sometime artificially conferred; it must be earned.
The Yom Kippur ritual might better be referred to as the Ish Iti Elegy, a dramatic presentation about how G-d’s plan for the universe intersects with an individual’s life. It challenges the notion that a person’s life is a collection of coincidences animated by chance or that the person can escape destiny, even by means of substituting a so-called scapegoat.
Who was this Ish Iti and what relationship does he have to this extraordinary ritual? The term literally means man of time or temporary man. The Chizkuni[iv] emphasizes this point in a striking and chilling description of the person chosen to play this role. He must be someone whose time has come and was destined to die before the year was out.
The Talmud[v] describes how there were many volunteers for the task of escorting the goat to Azazel and, on the day prior to Yom Kippur, the person chosen was prepared in readiness for the mission. Imagine breaking the news to him that he had less than a year to live. Yet, undaunted, he pursued the arduous task of traveling for miles through the wilderness, with a sometimes recalcitrant goat, that he might have to carry, passing through ten stations[vi] set up along the way. His destination, according to the Talmud[vii] was a strong point (Az), on a cliff above a depression. The goat would be escorted to this precipice and then it would be gone (Azel), tumbling to its death. Consider, the Ish Iti found himself literally between the proverbial rock of the Temple Mount[viii] and a hard place of the Azazel cliff and figuratively, as well, given his condition; yet, he persevered. What motivated him to do so? Did he appreciate that he was not selected by chance? Indeed, the entire ceremony was planned down to the intimate details.
The symbolism of the goat is cogent. As Maimonides[ix] notes, there were some who worshipped demons and believed they assumed the form of goats. In this regard it should be noted, the Bible[x] juxtaposes this presentation about the goat sent to Azazel with its proscription against the worship of demons. It also uses the term ‘Seirim’ to mean demons, which has the same root as ‘Seir’, meaning a goat. In essence, the cure for the spiritual disease of belief in goat demons is accomplished by apprehending a diametrically opposed position. Thus, demonstrating a goat is powerless even to prevent its own death effectively undermines the belief that it could exert any power over life and death. There are no real demons and they have no power over us. Indeed, the Talmud[xi] describes how Satan is nothing more than a symbolic representation of our inner demon, the evil inclination that is our nemesis.
The seeming randomness of life is also dramatically challenged by this Yom Kippur ritual. The Ish Iti stands in contrast to those who might rationalize difficult circumstances as the luck of the draw and embrace victimhood as a conditioned response. He inspires us to take charge of our lives. He may only be able to control his response to the problems encountered; but that too is a choice.
Witnessing a person like the Ish Iti contritely respond to life’s extraordinary challenges with nobility and unbroken spirit is humbling. He demonstrates that we are not controlled by inanimate objects or the vagaries of chance. We have free will and can react with kindness or harshness. In a universe governed by G-d’s justice and mercy, we are ultimately judged by our chosen reactions. This is not about our judging anyone. As Hillel[xii] stated so well, don’t judge a fellow person until you have reached their place. We can, however, appreciate the good deeds they perform and especially under trying circumstances, because they inspire us to be better.
It is not the sacrifice of a goat, whether on the Temple Altar or at Azazel, which absolves a person’s sins. Who better than a man without time to dramatize that there are no artificial devices like sacrificing a so-called scapegoat to achieve absolution? It doesn’t save the Ish Iti from his fate and everyone is reminded of this every Yom Kippur. G-d’s ultimate judgment is rendered based on a complete and unerring accounting of a person’s good and bad deeds, as tempered by G-d’s mercy; not mere chance. Albert Einstein pithily described these antithetical world-views. There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle. G-d does not play dice with the universe.
It is suggested that this Yom Kippur ritual is designed to bring this message home. The Ish Iti confronts the misconceptions about how the world functions in dramatic fashion and in the process is provided with the opportunity to earn eternal life. The Talmud explains that no person dies who hasn’t sinned[xiii]. However, that does not mean that they cannot earn eternal life and reward in the world to come[xiv]. Unlike most, he at least knows the year in which he will pass on. The choice is his to do something extraordinary so as to earn eternal reward in one day. What a challenge and, at the same time, what a gift?
There are many people who face life-ending challenges every day. Some are crushed by their circumstances; but others achieve genuine nobility. There does not seem to be any presumptive trait that differentiates how people react to these kind of nearly insurmountable pressures. It’s usually a personal matter of pure will and faith. Knowing that there are such heroic and saintly souls among us is heartening and life affirming. Remembering them and their good acts is the least we can do to honor their memory.
There were such men and women in the Holocaust, who actually had little or no time left or genuinely perceived this was the case. Yet, some made enough time and had the presence of mind and determination to do some act of kindness to help someone else. Those who survived often received some help from someone else and some similarly dispensed it to others too. They recognized their miraculous deliverance was not just some random occurrence; it was divine providence, which enabled them to survive. It also expressed itself in their profound sense of gratitude and how they went on to live their lives as if they were on borrowed time, on a mission of supreme importance.
My father-in-law, of blessed memory, was such a person. He was a Holocaust survivor, who only just recently passed away. He would become extremely emotional as he told us how he was miraculously saved on his arrival at Auschwitz. We felt his trepidation as he recounted how he became separated from his mother on line and found himself near a woman from his town Orshava, in pre-war Czechoslovakia. She was holding a child in each arm. He asked her to take him with her. She responded she had her own two kids to care for and couldn’t take responsibility for him too. He felt dejected at the time. However, but for her refusal, he would have been on the wrong line. It led to the gas chambers and certain death. Instead, he continued to wander back and forth searching for his mother.
A Polish Jew, assigned to gather up the clothing and property left behind at the Auschwitz train station saw him wandering. He told him to put on some more clothes, puff himself up to look older and stronger and say he was at least sixteen years of age. Young Aron Tambor was no more than fifteen at the time and would otherwise likely have been sent to his death. The kind Polish Jew then directed him to the right line, for labor and hence, life.
He was on that line when he encountered the Angel of Death, Josef Mengele, who was fascinated by his striking blue eyes and even asked him whether he was indeed Jewish. Mengele then pointed him in the direction of slave labor, instead of immediate death in the gas chambers.
He then met his uncle among those sent to a satellite slave labor camp at Auschwitz. When the gathered souls were asked whether there was a cook among them, only my father-in-law and his uncle refrained from raising their hands. The German Sergeant concluded the two of them must be the actual cooks and they were drafted into kitchen duty.
The access to a little extra food saved him from starvation in the slave labor camp at Auschwitz. However, he was not content to eat his meager bit of extra ration alone. He shared it with others in the bunk; who were thereby enabled to survive as well. The performance of wholly altruistic acts of goodness was characteristic of many who miraculously survived the Holocaust. This included my own Dad, of blessed memory, who was also a survivor of Auschwitz.
This does not detract from the nobility of the Six Million Jews, who were murdered by the Nazis and their cohorts. They died sanctifying G-d’s name and their sacrifice is remembered every time we say Yizkor, on Tisha B’Av and on days like Yom HaShoah, which we commemorated this week. The Ish Iti reminds us that the good they did lives on and like their holy souls is eternal.
Whether it is the Ish Iti of ancient times, those who through their kind acts and personal sacrifices helped others in the Holocaust and throughout history or the heroic and saintly figures we encounter in daily life, they demonstrate that life is not just a matter of chance. They are doing G-d’s work on this Earth, through their good deeds.
Keep the faith and remember all the Holocaust survivors and others who have passed on. Their legacy is embodied in our persons and the good acts we do, which perpetuate their good name and memory.
[i] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, at page 153a. See also Kohelet Rabbah 9:8, Avot D’Rabbi Natan 15:4 and Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Repentence 7:2.
[ii] Leviticus 16:7 & 21.
[iii] Mishna Yoma 6:1 and Babylonian Talmud, Tracate Yoma, at page 62b.
[iv] 13th century Biblical commentary by Rav Chezkiah ben Manoah on Leviticus 16:21. See also Kli Yakar commentary on this Biblical verse, as well as, Maharsha commentary on Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, page 62a.
[v] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, at pages 66a-b, as well as, Rashi commentary on Leviticus 16:21 and Sifra, Acharei Mot, Section 4:8.
[vi] Mishna Yoma 6:4.
[vii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, at page 67b.
[viii] The Even Shetiah or foundation stone, upon which the Holy of Holies was situated.
[ix] Guide for the Perplexed Part 3, Chapter 46.
[x] Leviticus 17:7, which uses the term
[xi] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra, at page 16a.
[xii] Avot 2:4.
[xiii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, at page 55a.
[xiv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at page 90a.