Dispatching the goat, what it may mean

One of the most remarkable elements of Yom Kippur in ancient times, when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, was the ritual of “the two goats.”

October 11, 2005 22:41
4 minute read.


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One of the most remarkable elements of Yom Kippur in ancient times, when the 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 randomlypulled lot on the head of each animal. One lot read “to God” 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 prayerservice), 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 God. 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. The writer is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

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