David Walk
David Walk


The world loves a scapegoat. Having someone else to blame for failure, is so psychologically comforting. Traditionally, it’s the Jews. There’s both logic and irony to his phenomenon. The logic is that we are the eternal outsider. And so, when trouble strikes, it’s so very easy to point fingers at the stranger in your midst. As a result, even when Jews are contributing mightily to a nation’s success, at the first sign of a downturn, we are identified as the cause. It’s strangely weird how patriotic Jews are, when you consider how quickly those same countries turn on us.  

Then there’s the irony. We invented this idea which is so often used against us. And, of course, this concept is contained is his week’s Torah reading. We are told: He shall take the two goats and set them before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting; and Aaron shall cast lots on the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel. Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord, and offer it as a sin offering; but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel (Vayikra 16:6-10). 

This is the central event of the Yom Kippur service. Masses of people surrounded the Temple Mount to watch the dispatched goat cross a temporary bridge spanning the Kidron Valley. There were other highlights, but the idea of that goat bearing away our iniquities seemed to have truly sparked the imagination of the Jews who flowed to Yerushalayim annually to witness the great event. 

 But there’s one point which bothers me a bit this year. In previous years, I’ve written about the mystery of Azazael, about the power of the lottery, and some other issues, but this year the thing which intrigues me is: And he shall take the two he goats, and place them before the Lord at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting (verse 7). And the Talmud explains: The two goats must be exactly the same, the exact same color and exact same size, the exact same cost (Yoma 37a). Why? 

Why is it so important that the goats be the same? Personally, I would have preferred that the goat going out to the wilderness to be thrown off a cliff should have been like a bit disheveled. We always want the best items dedicated to God and holiness. For example, if you have two items, save the nicer one for Shabbat. We’re always trying to dedicate the nicest things ‘For HASHEM’. Why should that be different on the holiest occasion of the year? 

I’d like to present two answers to this conundrum. The first was suggested by the Abarbanel. This fifteenth century commentary explains that the two goats came from the story of Ya’akov and Esav (aka SEIR, ‘the hairy goat’). The outside world couldn’t know which of these twins would succeed his saintly father in leading God’s people. The Abarbanel avers that the two goats were already hinted at in the instructions of Rivka Imeinu to get two kid goats to feed Yitzchak during the deception staged to receive the BRACHOT. This is very important. Outer appearances can’t predict spiritual greatness. The fates of the goats are very different, but to the observer, not foreseeable or inevitable. 

Then Rav Meir Lichtenstein of Yeshivat Har Etzion made a remarkable observation about the world, which informs us about these goats and about the book of Vayikra. He notes: There are two fundamental concepts in Judaism, ‘holiness’ and ‘purity’. Purity describes the natural state of things. The world is pure until someone comes and defiles it, through sin. In Kabbala, the original sin of Adam and Chava is called ZUHAMA, ‘pollution’. They defiled the purity of the world.  

By contrast, ‘holiness’ doesn’t exist in the natural world. It is something artificial, created by humanity. Rav Soloveichik often commented on the power of humanity to create KEDUSHA. He believed that all earthly KEDUSHA comes from humans. 

The book of Vayikra until this portion about the service on Yom Kippur, is about the artificial world of KEDUSHA in the portable Temple. The rest of the book discusses ‘purity’, with laws about marriage, agriculture and society. 

The goats must be exactly the same, because Jews must equally concern themselves with sanctity and purity. One goat atones for sins against sanctity and is offered in the Beit HaMikdash; the other is slaughtered in an unblemished, pure wilderness, and brings forgiveness for sins against purity. 

These two opinions are crucial to a successful Jewish life of spirituality. The Abarbanel reminds us that outward appearances are by their very nature deceiving. Therefore, never allow yourself to be pigeonholed. Rav Lichtenstein teaches that the authentic Jewish life exists both within the hallowed walls of sanctuaries, and in the ‘real’ world of nature, business and relations. 

In other words, we need both goats, and they must be as equal as we can make them. The success of our lives may depend upon it, and we can never blame anyone but ourselves. 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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