Seasons - Then and Now

For the week ending 11 September 2021 / 5 Tishrei 5782

Yom Kippur

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
Library Library Library

A Lot to be Desired

The focal point of the great month of Tishrei is undoubtedly Yom Kippur, the day on which our return, bestirred by Rosh Hashana, ripens into atonement and purity, clearing away the sins of our past and creating a pure vessel to hold our future. On this day, the new Tablets were brought down to the people as a pledge of the renewal of Hashem’s covenant with His people. It was appointed for all time as a day in which His mercy is restored, and the Covenant renewed.

The high point of the day is the Sanctuary service, which gave symbolic expression to this renewed Covenant, resulting from renewed dedication. Chief among these symbolic acts was the service of the two he-goats. After the Kohen Hagadol has leaned his hands upon the head of his bull of atonement and confessed upon it his own sins, he steps back to the portal of the court of the people, and there awaiting him at the entrance to the Sanctuary are two he-goats. The heads of both of them are turned to the Holy of Holies. The animals are of identical appearance, size, and value, and were acquired for the Sanctuary at the same time. While their circumstances could not be more identical, their fates could not be more different. Two lots (akin to what is known nowadays as “lottery tickets”) of identical size and material are placed in the urn. One of these is “for Hashem” and the other is “for Azazel.”

The animal marked for Hashem will become an offering. Its blood immediately represents atonement and consecration. The animal marked for Azazel does not meet its death for atonement. It stands untouched, while its companion is offered. It is led away from the Sanctuary into the open, to a high rock. It stands free and erect… until it suddenly topples backward down a precipice, to its demise.

These are the symbols of the two paths between which we are to choose. The gift of free will allows us to mark ourselves either as for Hashem or for Azazel. The path to Hashem begins with self-sacrifice and abdication of ego. But what appears to be a loss of self is in fact an entry into a higher and more genuine form of existence. The path to Azazel, on the other hand, begins with apparent preservation of independent life, and a rejection of sacrifice and devotion. It appears to be the path to life, but in fact it is the way to a miserable death. He who has escaped the sacrifices demanded by the Sanctuary stands tall upon the dizzying height and looks down triumphantly upon the place where his undiscerning companions appear to be bleeding to death. But he does not see the abrupt precipice that will open behind him and doom him to death.

No one’s path is predetermined. The goats were of the same appearance and value, and stood at the same spot, in the same direction. No one’s fate is determined by his standing, material circumstances, upbringing, or position in life. Each and every person is endowed with the free will to draw his lot as for Hashem or for Azazel. Indeed, the lot could not designate an animal for Azazel if it was not also fit to be an offering to Hashem. A man’s sinful deeds are deemed sinful (Azazel) only because he had the capacity to choose good. By the same token, virtue would not be virtue if evil had no attraction. Actions are significant only because we can choose.

This is one of the great lessons of Yom Kippur, which the Service imparted. On Yom Kippur we are placed between these two goats. Fortunate is he who marks himself “for Hashem.”

  • Collected Writings, II, Tishrei V, pp. 105-112.

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