Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 28 April 2018 / 13 Iyyar 5778

Parshat Acharei Mot - Kedoshim

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Two Goats Diverged to Bad and Good

On Yom Kippur, two goats stood at the entrance to the Sanctuary. They stood, identical in age, height, appearance and value, and awaited the lots to be drawn. One would become the seir L’Hashem, the he-goat offered in the Sanctuary. The other would become the seir l’Azazel, the he-goat sent to the wilderness. Each one could have realized the fate of the other, had the lots been reversed.

The seir l’Hashem gained entrance to the Sanctuary only at the price of death as an offering. It was then brought to the Holy of Holies, close to the holiest place, on the holiest day of the year. Its partner was left standing alive, unscathed. The seir l’Azazel never gained entry into the Sanctuary; in turning its back on the Sanctuary, it preserved its self-centered life, which was ultimately put to an end in the desolation of the wilderness.

Each individual is a seir. The seir, goat, is a domesticated animal, but shows outward defiance to others. We all have the power to resist, and the moral worth of our life depends on how we use this power. We can use it to resist the sensual temptations of life and become a seir l’Hashem. Or we can resist the will of G-d, the Torah, and become a seir l’Azazel. Azazel is a contraction of two words: az (headstrong character) and azal (gone). One who is like the seir l’Azazel acts with defiant strength, and, as a result, expires and disappears.

The forces of nature and the animal kingdom are unfree. They are unchanging in their performance of G-d’s will. But in the midst of these, man was created and granted freedom. Freedom to master the forces of nature, and freedom to master his own impulses and drives. But implicit in that freedom is freedom to oppose G-d’s will; freedom to succumb to temptation and sensuality. It is only by virtue of this freedom that man achieves any moral worth, for only when there is choice can there be reward. If we were not able to choose between being a seir L’Hashem and a seir l’Azazel, we would be equally compelled by G-d’s law, never deviating, and also never earning our keep.

The choice is not predetermined — not by “height, or appearance or value;” not by social standing, financial status, or upbringing. Anyone can become either a seir l’Hashem or seir l’Azazel.

A person can decide to go in the way of Azazel. Standing at the entrance to the Sanctuary, he defies G-d’s will, refusing to give up the life of the animal in him. He refuses to surrender his sensuality, and remains a live animal, unscathed, unmoved by his exposure to the Sanctuary. With his resistance in full force, he has no place in the Sanctuary and is sent to the wilderness.

Or a person can decide to go in the way of Hashem. Mustering his resistance, he directs it inward, and fights the drives and impulses that would lead him away from his calling. With the knife of sanctification he destroys the animal within him, and earns his place in the Sanctuary of moral freedom.

  • Sources: Commentary, Vayikra 17:10

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