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Dispatching the Goat

Dispatching the Goat


One of the most remarkable elements of the Jewish fast of Yom Kippur in ancient times, when the central Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, was the ritual of "the two goats."

Two indistinguishable members of that species were brought before the High Priest, who placed a randomly-pulled lot on the head of each animal. One lot read "to G‑d" and the other "to Azazel" – the name of a steep cliff in a barren desert.

As the Torah prescribes, the first goat was solemnly sacrificed in the Temple, attention given to every detail of the offering; the second was taken to the cliff of its name and thrown off, dying unceremoniously before it even reached the bottom.

Some moderns might find the fates of both goats troubling, but there are depths to Jewish rituals of which they do not dream.

I lay no claim to conversance with those deeper meanings. But pondering the "two goats" ritual before Yom Kippur (and anticipating its recollection during the day’s prayer-service), a thought occurs, and it may bear particular import for our times.

There are two ways to view human life, as mutually exclusive as they are fundamental. Our existence is either a result of intention, or of accident. And the corollary follows directly: Either our lives are meaningful, or they are not.

If the roots of our existence ultimately lie in pure randomness, there can be no more meaning to good and bad actions than to good or bad movies; no more import to right and wrong than to right and left. We remain but evolved animals, our Mother Theresas and Adolf Hitlers alike. To be sure, we might conceive a rationale for establishing societal norms, but a social contract is but a practical tool, not a moral imperative; it is, in the end, artificial. Only if there is a Creator in the larger picture can there be true import to human life, placing it on a plane apart from mosquitoes.

The Torah, of course, is built upon the foundation – and in fact begins with an account – of a divinely directed creation; and its most basic message is the meaningfulness of human life. Most of us harbor a similar, innate conviction.

Yet a perspective that informs the worldview of some holds that what we can perceive with our physical senses is all there is. The apparent randomness of nature, in that approach, leaves no place at all for divinity. It is not a difficult position to maintain; the Creator may be well evident to those primed to perceive Him, but He did not leave clear fingerprints on His Creation.

Might those two diametric worldviews be somehow reflected in the Yom Kippur ritual?

The goat that becomes a sacrifice on the Temple altar might symbolize recognition of the idea of dedication to service of the divine. If so, might not its partner, which finds its fate in a desolate, unholy place, allude to the perspective of life as pointless, lacking higher purpose or meaning?

It is not an unthinkable speculation, especially in light of how the Azazel-goat seems to be described by the Torah as carrying away the sins of the people.

The traditional Jewish commentaries all wonder at that concept. Some, including Maimonides, interpret it to mean that the people will be spurred by the dispatching of the Azazel-goat to repent.

If the Azazel-goat alludes to the mindset of meaninglessness, we might approach an understanding of the inspiration that may have lain in its dispatching. The animal's being "laden with the sins" of the people might refer to the recognition that sin stems from insufficient recognition of how meaningful in fact are our lives. The Talmudic rabbis in effect said as much when they observed that "A person does not sin unless a spirit of madness enters him."

And so the sending off of the Azazel-goat could be seen as an acknowledgement of the idea that sin’s roots lie in the madness born of our self-doubt. And those who witnessed its dispatchment might well have been spurred by the thought to turn instead to consider the other goat, the one sacrificed in dedication to G‑d. So stirred on the holiest day of the Jewish year, they might then have be able to effectively commit themselves to re-embrace the grand meaning that is a human life.

We may ourselves lack the goat ritual today, but we can certainly endeavor to absorb that eternally timely thought just the same.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is the director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.
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Fu May 15, 2014

I do not believe God wants any of His poor creatures, that He loves with His whole heart, to die such a cruel death. Reply

Yehuda Shurpin for October 11, 2011

Re: Sins of the people This question can be asked with regards to all sacrifices. But the truth is that a sacrifices alone will not atone for their sins until they repent and make a verbal confession as the verse states with regards to sin offerings (Leviticus 5;5) : "He shall confess the sin he has committed upon it."

As soon as you regret what you did and resolve that it will never happen again, you are forgiven and completely exonerated from the judgment to come.

Nonetheless, in order that one be acceptable before G-d, as beloved of Him as before the sin, one brings an offering to G-d.

For more on this see:
Getting Forgiven

Tanya, Iggeret Hateshuva chapter 2 Reply

Anonymous london, england via April 26, 2009

I feel you pain emma.

The same question could be asked about the holocaust. The difference is that the holocaust was evil done by people who chose to do bad.

The goat is being killed in by command of G-D.

It funny that abraham was considered righteous for his willingness to offer up his son as a sacrifice by gods command.

In my mind this all seems barbaric - dropping goats of mountains and almost killing ones child.

My human mind is to limited to fathom any sense or reason to this all. Reply

Emma October 24, 2008

You make a very good point, but sorry, i dont buy it..our Torah is profound and part of our obligation as Jewish ppl is to know our G-D, to know before whom we stand, not to just throw our hands in the air. There's lots of meaning behind our rituals and it's definitely a worthy pursuit! Reply

Tzvi Freeman Thornhill, Ontario October 20, 2008

Re: Animal Cruelty I agree. If it were up to me, none of this would happen. In fact, if it were up to me, lions and wolves would be vegetarians, volcanoes would never harm people and the entire universe would be organism-friendly.

But what can I do, I'm not G_d and He calls the shots. Reply

Emma October 19, 2008

Animal Cruelty With all that was said, the fate of the goat thrown off the cliff of Azazel still seems pretty gruesome. Why cant we just slaughter it or do something like we do with Kaparot or even tashlich? It seems so cruel to throw off this goat, and its bones break...there has to be a better answer to this whole episode... Reply

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