Something Gotcha Goat?

We stood in the foyer of the mayor’s office: we were about 20 – 30 people and there were only  a few seats available. Already it was 11:30 AM and the meeting was running late  by 30 minutes. I had never really sat in a meeting with Ehud Olmert before, but I had a good idea what to expect.

Most of the crowd were representatives of the Neighborhood Committees who volunteered to deal with transportation and bus service in their communities. I, with the title of “coordinator for the bus alternative” at the Jerusalem Transportation Masterplan Team (JTMT), was liaisoned to explain the  mass transit bus alternative to the neighborhood representatives and to get their feedback. Despite my  misgivings (more on that later) I found the task actually quite uplifting. The representatives, for the most part,  were dedicated and intelligent and I learned much from them ( Naomi Tzur ,  Yael  Anatabi  and  the amazing  Sarah Kaminker  were all representatives).

Eventually we all filed in and  sat around a long table. At the far end Olmert was reclining in an overstuffed chair, feet on the table and an unlit cigar in his hand. So the meeting progressed with mayor showing little interest in neither the subject nor the participants. I felt terrible : the volunteers on the committee deserved  much more respect regardless of what Olmert thought of the topic.

Post Holyland Trial, it is natural  to think of those found guilty in less than approving terms. After  all, to be convicted of accepting bribes is a very serious stain  on anyone’s record. Still, I remember that Olmert  has also some very serious  “righteous acts” under his belt, including his exceptional concern for the family of Shmuel Meir since Meir was killed in a car accident  about ten years ago. In short, there is not one Ehud Olmert, but (at least) two, each  representing different facet of his essence.

In this week’s Torah portion, Aharei Mot, we read about  two goats, one which is to be  sacrificed  on the altar to G-d and the other that is thrown off a cliff to Azazel after Israel’s sins are symbolically  placed on the goat’s head.  The goat thrown off the cliff is the original scapegoat and it isn’t all clear who, or even  what, Azazel is. To make matters more complicated,  a lot is cast to decide which  goat  will  be the scapegoat, something unusual when concerning  altar sacrifices.

While I’m no Torah scholar, I do have some theory of what meaning is behind this (or at least I think I do). Please, I beg you to forgive me  for my effrontery and to hear me through.

What is Azazel? Since Judaism rejects the concept of duality or of a “good cop, bad cop” concept (and the Zohar does posit that the scapegoat is a bribe to the Angel of Esau), I am left to conclude that Azazel means “total desolation”. We then have the prospect that one goat is being elevated as a sacrifice while the other is destined to be totally lost. If so, perhaps we have two different directions, one holy taking us closer to G-d and one profane, distancing us from G-d.

Explaining the lottery is to me a bit more difficult. Last week, in Metzora, we had a ceremony with two birds: one to be sacrificed and the other, after being dipped in the blood of the first bird, to be released and there was no lottery. Simply one bird gets chosen for one and another for the other. So why cast lots for the fates of the goats?  What could be the symbolism?

In Mishnah (Yoma 39a]) following the Hebrew Bible text; two goats were procured, similar in respect of appearance, height, cost, and time of selection. Having one of these on his right and the other on his left, the high priest, who was assisted in this rite by two subordinates, put both his hands into a wooden case, and took out two labels, one inscribed “for HaSHem” and the other “for absolute removal” (or “for Azazel”). The high priest then laid his hands with the labels upon the two goats and said, “A sin-offering to HaShem” ; and the two men accompanying him replied, “Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever.” He then fastened a scarlet woolen thread to the head of the goat “for Azazel”; and laying his hands upon it again, recited the following confession of sin and prayer for forgiveness: “O Lord, I have acted iniquitously, trespassed, sinned before Thee: I, my household, and the sons of Aaron Thy holy ones. O Lord, forgive the iniquities, transgressions, and sins that I, my household, and Aaron’s children, Thy holy people, committed before Thee, as is written in the law of Moses, Thy servant, ‘for on this day He will forgive you, to cleanse you from all your sins before the Lord; ye shall be clean.'”

At  any junction in time, Man is faced with a basic question of what  he can aspire to.  Think of yourself  as two possible people each with the same skills, desires, and dreams. Will you choose to do “good” and to aspire to the divine and the holy or will you choose the path to desolation and destruction for yourself and those around you? If only it was always easy to choose.  Sometimes circumstances, say, chance events , temptations lead us to a path that in the end can mean a spiritual death. Instead of being masters of our destiny, we become pawns or slaves of the occasion.

When the High Priest withdraws the lots is it a matter of chance or is it G-d who really chooses which goat becomes the scapegoat and the lottery is just  vehicle for His will to be done? To all it appears that there is no choice, only chance, but on a deeper level something else is happening. Are our fates similarly preordained?  Is then our destiny  a matter of chance, a random coin throw?

No person who believes should entertain the concept that any action, large or small, takes place by coincidence. Instead, everything is determined by Divine providence. The intent is not that the act is determined by the angels, the thrones, or the Sefiros, heaven forbid. Instead, everything is determined by the mystic secret of the providence of the Ein Sof.

No. We have free will and can change our destiny if we wish. Still the freedom to choose  does not mean the freedom to choose our choices.  Sometimes  Man faces dire situations where  no alternative appears viable and all seems lost. At those moments, when we teeter on the edge of hell,  there is no alternative to prayer.   As we say on Yom Kippur, repentance,  prayer and charity avert the judgement.

These are the three paths which lead to a year “written and sealed” for good.

By returning to one’s innermost self (teshuvah), by attaching oneself to G-d (tefillah) and by distributing one’s possessions with righteousness (tzedakah), one turns the promise of Rosh Hashanah into the abundant fulfillment of Yom Kippur: A year of sweetness and plenty  – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

It is not fate that made Olmert accept bribes; it was his own choice. Perhaps without the temptation, he might have become the crusading politician he set out to be when he started his career. He might have been a different person. For his mistakes he is held accountable by us, but we should be humble enough to remember that even we could have failed under similar circumstances. We can only strive to tefillah , to pray for redemption so that our destinies will not be left  to chance.

  • מתי נטהר האדם מעונו, בשעה שנכנס בתשובה ההיא כראוי. ריצחק אמר בשעה ששב לפני המלך העליון, ומתפלל תפלה
    מעומק הלב, זה שאמר ממעמקים קראתיך ה’.
    -Zohar, parshat Aharei Mot
About the Author
Shlomo Toren has been a resident of Israel since 1980, and a transportation planner for the last 25 years. He has done demand modeling for the Jerusalem Light Rail and Road 6. He is married to Neera and lives in Shiloh.
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