Some of Judaism’s many mitzvot (commandments) are logical and comprehensible, while the reasoning and purpose behind others has proven elusive, even to insiders. The radiant glow of burning Sabbath candles clearly suffuses the Jewish home with an ambience of heartfelt peace and comfort. Likewise, fasting on Yom Kippur leads to introspection, a key element of the day. But ascribing a purpose to the donning of tefillin (phylacteries) is a challenge.
Of the many commandments in this week’s double-parsha, one that appears early in Acharei Mot may be the strangest: namely, the scapegoat, sacrificed on Yom Kippur, as part of the high priest’s service, albeit in a less readily accessible manner than the fasting that leads to introspection. Leviticus 16 describes the service: first, two identical twin goats were selected. Then, lots were drawn to determine which of the two would be offered on the altar in the Temple. Then, the high priest would turn to the other goat, confess the entire nation’s sins over it, and send it out with a messenger so that “the goat would carry on it all [of Israel’s] iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.” (16:22)
The Mishna Yoma 6:6 details what happened in the wilderness:
What did he do? He divided a thread of crimson wool, and tied one half to the rock, the other half between its horns, and pushed it from behind, and it went rolling down and before it had reached half its way downhill it had broken into limbs.
What a strange and unusual ritual! Even more surprising is that this critical part of the High Holiday service, via which the entire nation atones, occurs outside the holy Temple (in the wilderness, no less), and in a drastically different manner from the usual sacrificial ceremonies.
What is the rationale behind this strange practice?
The sacrifice of the scapegoat is an example of a “chok” — a statute — listed in the Talmud (Yoma 67) and which concludes: “lest you say these have no reason and are meaningless acts, therefore the verse states: “I am the Lord” (Leviticus 18:4), to indicate: I am the Lord, I decreed these statutes and you have no right to doubt them. Did God decree these statues for some good reason that He then kept from humanity? Or is this decree officially random, designed to test Jews’ commitment and devotion?
Moreover, some statutes are inherently contradictory. Once sacrifices were to be offered only in the Temple, how can the high priest be commanded to sacrifice the scapegoat out in the wilderness? Doesn’t that location violate a biblical prohibition? How can such an offering be acceptable? Yet following the Divine command apparently takes precedence, even over God’s previous commands.
According to the medieval rationalist philosopher Maimonides, this ceremony was designed to affect the nation’s spiritual emotions (Guide to the Perplexed 3:46). It is intended to motivate, encourage, and spur the people to repent. The animal cannot itself effectuate atonement, but it can and does drive sinners to reconsider the ramifications of their actions.
The great 19th century German commentator, Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, author of the work, HaKetav VeHaKabbalah, views the command as a way to show the people that by treating this animal in a poor and even humiliating fashion, the Jewish people are collectively and unequivocally rejecting all forms of worship other than those commanded by God.
Don Isaac Abarbanel takes a step back and considers the scapegoat from the ritual’s inception. Namely, the service begins with a lottery between two identical animals, which, says the scholar, symbolizes the eternal struggle between Jacob and Esau. Like the goats, they were twins who had different paths in life (presumably with more choice than the goats had). Put simply, Jacob (and the sacrifice on the altar) represent good, while Esau and the goat sent to the wilderness represent evil. In life, the distinction between good and evil can be subtle. The hairy goat, “se’ir” in Hebrew, represents Esau, whom the Torah describes as hairy and living in “se’ir.” Each person, figuratively, has the choice to be like Jacob, and play a role in the holy Temple service, or be like Esau, and end up in the wilderness rolling off a non-descript cliff to oblivion.
It follows from this understanding that the scapegoat should not be viewed as a sacrifice at all, but as a prayer that the same destruction that the goat is to experience should be visited upon Israel’s enemies. The sins that were confessed on its head thus signify that sin is inconsistent with the behavior of Jacob’s descendants. The sinner is influenced not by his pure soul, but from outside negative forces, which are symbolically disposed of through the hapless scapegoat. The goat is banished, as if to say sin is not part of the Jewish identity, nor does it define its character.
There are times when the ability to distinguish between Jacob and Esau, or good and evil, for that matter, is difficult and unclear. Isaac is confused as to whether he is being approached by Jacob, the model of righteousness or by Esau, the archetype of evil. But while human beings may be easily deceived, God is not. On the holiest day of the year, the scapegoat reminds everyone to engage in introspection and reflection. The question remains, however, whether the scapegoat perpetuates the path of Jacob, or its opposite.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests what the scapegoat under these conditions might have been thinking. Consider: he sees his twin being sacrificed, though he remains alive, and is even escorted out to the wilderness. “What good fortune! My brother was slaughtered and I am being led to freedom1 I am going to enjoy nature, smelling the flowers and seeing the sky while my poor, sad brother suffered a terrible calamity.” The human observers, however, know exactly what awaits the scapegoat. How mistaken he is! Soon he will be nothing more than a pile of bones in what is surely a far worse place than his brother on the holy altar.
Rabbi Hirsch’s dramatization imagines the scapegoat with a tragically flawed perspective. Roaming free carrying the sins of all Israel is presented as his own ideal, but it smacks of Billy Joel’s preference: “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints…the sinners have much more fun.” The implication is, of course, that those who consciously and conscientiously dedicate their lives to God by observing Judaism’s dictates and duties are overburdened (and how can that be more fun?).
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explains that throughout the calendar year, people sin and think that they are getting away with it. It’s not Yom Kippur, after all. But, he maintains, sin causes grievous spiritual devastation even when it is not visible. The first goat, offered on the altar only on Yom Kippur, therefore provides the atonement that the people need for the sins they have done all year. By sending the scapegoat to wilderness, which is also called “Azazel” in the Torah and is understood to be the “Satan” who taunts Jews for abiding by those statutes that have no readily understood rationale, the Jewish people divest themselves of any pleasure or benefit that they might have thought they had accrued during the year, due to their sins. Thus, the scapegoat not only carries the people’s sins off into the wilderness, but it also becomes the method by which people cleanse themselves of sinful behavior.
Or rather, in the event that the people who sinned repent, then the scapegoat’s travail in the wilderness cleanses them. As Rambam determines (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 1:2), “For all [sins] the Azazel-goat atones, provided the sinner did repent. But if he doesn’t repent, the Azazel-goat does not atone for his…sins.” There is no magical, fanciful path to renewing and deepening one’s relationship with one’s Creator. Nor is the way forward a statute for which the explanation is beyond human comprehension. Rather, the degree to which humans refrain from sin, and the degree they atone when they do, inevitably sin, is exactly the way for them to forge a path closer to the Divine.