Posted in D'var Torah

The Scapegoat and Yom Kippur

In the middle of the Torah reading, a seemingly important aspect of the Avodah service of the Kohen Gadol is this of the goats. In English we call them the scapegoats.

The Kohen is told (Vayikra 16:7-10):

And he shall take the two he goats, and place them before the Lord at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. And Aaron shall place lots upon the two he goats: one lot “for the Lord,” and the other lot, “For Azazel.” And Aaron shall bring the he goats upon which the lot, “For the Lord,” came up, and designate it as a sin offering. And the he goat upon which the lot “For Azazel” camp up, shall be placed while still alive, before the Lord, to initiate atonement upon it, and to send it away to Azazel, into the desert.

Following this decree, we hear a bit more about the process of the sacrifices surrounding the goat that was seen to go “to God”. And when this has taken place, the goat that was designated “for Azazel”, Aaron’s hands go upon it, he confesses all the sins and someone take that goat deep into the desert.

The majority of the sacrificial service on Yom Kippur is related to these two goats. The goats are supposed to look exactly the same, and their destiny is chosen by lots. Many of the commentaries try to make sense of this ritual, and to try and learn something deeper in relation to Yom Kippur.

The Abarvanel suggests that the scapegoat ritual is something that is done to invoke the memory of Jacob and Esav. That Esav, like the goat marked “for Azazel,” wandered into the wilderness away from his people, its law, and its traditions. Jacob, like the goat marked “for God,” lived a life devoted to God’s service. According to the Abarvanel, when Aaron, and the high priests after him cast lots to decide which of the two goats would be marked “for God” or “for Azazel”, Jews were to be reminded that they have the choice to live either like Jacob or Esav.

Rambam also believes that the scapegoat is done to “impress the mind of the sinner, that his sins must lead him to a wasteland.” When those who have broken the laws of Torah see that their sins are places upon the goat and sent out into the wilderness, it is hoped that “they will break with their sins…distance themselves from them, and turn back to God in sincere repentance.” (Guide for the Perplexed 3:46)

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch sees the choosing of the goats as a symbol of the choice each Jew makes on Yom Kippur. “We can decide for God, gathering together all the powers of resistance we have been given to resist everything that would tear us away from our vocation to be near God…Or we can decide for Azazel and uphold, unmastered, our selfish life of desires, and…give ourselves over to the uncontrolled might of sensuality…” (comment on Leviticus 16:10)

I think that the two goats are part of this intricate Yom Kippur service for a number of reasons. The two goats are the same, and they are chosen to go in their direction by lot- we have to see from this that there are things in our lives that will happen (both good and bad) that we will have no control over.

But I also think that by naming the two “for God” and “for Azazel” makes us think about our choices. That we have the option to go with God, which I would want to see as doing the right thing or the just thing, but we also have the option to do what is wrong. It is part of being human, as represented by both of the goats to sometimes make the right choice, and sometimes to make the wrong choice. And Yom Kippur can come along and in both cases we will be able to find atonement, and come out of the day cleansed from all sin, as it says in verse 30:

For on this day He shall effect atonement for you to cleanse you. Before the Lord, you shall be cleansed from all of your sins.


I am prone to overthinking and not to sharing. I decided to start writing and see what happens. So here are some stories and life situations (sometimes words of Torah) of a 30 something single woman, who happens to be a rabbi (received ordination in 2017- so there are posts of what that experience was like), will be working as a chaplain (and worked for years with older adults), is regularly asked what city she is located in (started the blog while living in Israel, found herself working in Australia, and will be in New York for at least a year), and is just trying to figure out her place in the world.

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