The Lesson on Yom Kippur
This month of Elul leads up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is a time of reflection and tishuvah, return, but with what should we emerge from this process?
Elul, Rosh Hashanah, the 10 Days of Tishuvah and Yom Kippur culminates in a service performed once a year on Yom Kippur itself, on the holiest day, in the holiest place, by the holiest person. But it was also, perhaps the strangest service in Judaism. As the Torah states in Vayikra/Leviticus 16:
ומאת עדת בני ישראל יִקח שני שעירי עִזים לחטאת ואיל אחד לעֹלה… ולקח את שני השעירִם, והעמיד אֹתם לפני ה' פתח אֹהל מועד. ונתן אהרן על שני השעירִם גֹרלות: גורל אחד לה' וגורל אחד לעזאזל. והקריב אהרן את השעיר אשר עלה עליו הגורל לה', ועשהוּ חטאת; והשעיר אשר עלה עליו הגורל לעזאזל יָעֳמד חי לפני ה' לכפר עליו, לשלח אֹתו לעזאזל המדברה.
7. And he (the High Priest) shall take the two goats, and present them before the Lord at the door of the Tent of Meeting.
8. And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for Azazel.
9. And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the Lord’s lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering.
10. But the goat, on which the lot fell to be for Azazel, shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go to Azazel into the wilderness.
This Yom Kippur service is the only ongoing mitzvah which specifically required a randomizer. In addition, these two goats from which one is chosen to be a sacrifice and the other, which in a truly strange seemingly un-Jewish act of wanton destruction is thrown off a cliff, had to be identical, in a way -twins. One no different that the other, no more deserving, no more holy, no more attractive; exactly the same but with diametrically opposite ends. As the Mishna in Yoma 62a states:
משנה. שני שעירי יום הכפורים מצותן שיהיו שניהן שוין במראה ובקומה ובדמים ובלקיחתן כאחד.
“The two goats of Yom Kippur had to be the same in appearance, height, and value, and they had to be purchased at the exactly the same time.”
Not only the two goats but the lots used to choose them had to be exactly the same, save the consequences engraved upon them. As the Talmud, Yoma 37a says:
וקלפי היתה שם ובה שני גורלות. – תלמוד לומר גורל אחד לה' וגורל אחד לעזאזל, אין כאן לשם אלא גורל אחד ואין כאן לעזאזל אלא אחד. יכול יתן של שם ושל עזאזל על זה, ושל שם ושל עזאזל על זה – תלמוד לומר גורל אחד [לה' – אין כאן לה' אלא אחד, ואין כאן לעזאזל אלא אחד]. אם כן מה תלמוד לומר גורלות? שיהיו שוין, שלא יעשה אחד של זהב ואחד של כסף, אחד גדול ואחד קטן. גורלות של כל דבר, פשיטא! – לא צריכא לכדתניא לפי שמצינו בציץ שהשם כתוב עליו והוא של זהב, יכול אף זה כן – תלמוד לומר גורל גורל ריבה. ריבה של זית, ריבה של אגוז, ריבה של אשכרוע.
The lots must be the same. Not one of gold and one of silver, one large and one small. The lots may be made from anything but they must be identical.
The central service of the holiest day, the day of judgment and atonement, of G-d being most present, revolved around two completely identical goats, costing the same, looking the same, chosen by identical lots, yet with opposite, truly random destinies. One for G-d the other for Azazel, for wanton, seemingly purposeless destruction.
This service almost seems as if, G-d forbid, it were engineered by a cynic, a tongue in cheek Dadaist, mocking G-d and us and the world G-d created, by attempting to highlight, though an eccentric act of performance art, the seemingly banal randomness of good and evil, the arbitrary meaninglessness of life, human will, choice, destiny and purpose. Though exactly the same, one is randomly chosen for G-d, for holiness, for a sacrifice in the holiest place, and one to be thrown off a cliff in a barren place, alone, witnessed by no one, not even its executioner who had to turn his back to push it off the cliff to its death, torn limb from limb.
Why is such a thing performed? How in the world does such a ceremony so seemingly cruel in its randomness bring total atonement for the Jewish people? Indeed it seems to fly in the face of everything we believe in and hold sacred.
Imagine for a moment that you are one of these two goats in holy Temple, destined for, you assume, a sacrifice. Now a random lottery chooses one over the other. Very much like life. One goat is chosen for G-d, for the alter, the other goat watches as his “twin” is led to the ritual slaughter. Imagine you are the goat watching. Your twin has been chosen for a Temple offering. You are relieved; you are led out of the Temple, you imagine to freedom. You are calm, smug, only to be thrown from a cliff in the wilderness, in a Jewish ritual act unprecedented throughout the year.
Both goats die. In fact all goats die, and all of us will die. The question that matters of course is which has lived the nobler life? This is the lesson of the tishuvah process. Not to escape death for another year, not to pray for a physically good year, live what we have for G-d and not for Azazel.
Often we wish to escape from responsibility into an imagined freedom. But in this world in which we have no control, our freedom from life, from death, is an illusion. What we can do is aim, within all this randomness of our universe, to live a life of holiness and meaning. A life La’Hashem-for G-d, and not La’azazel-for naught. Yom Kippur and the process of tishuvah can not help us to control the coming year, but it can help our life and our inevitable death, be on the Jewish alter, in the temple, not in some forsaken spiritual desert.
If we the Jewish people understand the message of the two goats, then indeed they can serve as atonement for us. If not, then it is just another Yom Kippur spent to assuage our guilt, and whose temporary inspiration will erode by Chanukah.