A Tale of Two Goats

Rabbi Wagensberg
Yom Kippur
A Tale of Two Goats

On Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) selects two he-goats by lot and makes one of them into a Sin Offering to Hashem, while the other one is sent to "Azazel" in the wilderness (Vayikra 16:5-10).

Many questions surface with respect to this most unusual service. For example, what does "Azazel" mean? Why send the goat to "Azazel?" What is the depth behind these two goats? How are they relevant to us today?

Rashi (Vayikra 16:8) says that the word "Azazel" is a combination of two other words: "Az" (strong) and "El" (mighty). These were the characteristics of the cliff from which the he-goat was thrown. Therefore, the term "Seir La'Azazel' (a goat to Azazel) means the goat to be delivered on a mighty rock. According to Rashi, the word "Azazel" is a description of the mountain that the goat was thrown off of.

However, the Gemara (Yoma, chap. 6, "Shnei Seirei", pg. 67b, Tanna d'Bei Rebbi Yishmael) says that the word "Azazel" is not a combination of two words, but rather a combination of two name: "Uzah" and "Azael." Uzah and Azael were two angels who asked God to send them down to Earth. They made this request before the Mabul (flood) in the days of Noach.

You see, immorality was rampant during that generation. These two angels wanted to show that they would not fall prey to the temptation of immorality. By refraining from sin, they wanted to prove that angels were better than Man.

So, Hashem beamed them down to Earth. Once they assumed bodies, they were stung by lustful passions. They wound up sinning more than people in immorality. Reference is made of this story at the end of parshas Bereishis when it talks about "B'nei Elokim" (sons of God; Bereishis 6:4). Angels are considered to be "sons of God" because they do not procreate. Rather, Hashem creates angels directly.

The verse also refers to them as "Nefilim" (those that fell; Bereishis 6:4). They were fallen angels. The verse (ibid) says that they saw the daughters of mankind and sinned terribly with them. Hashem told the angels that they should not pass quick and critical judgement against mankind because it is not such an easy thing to be righteous.

Therefore, the name "Azazel" teaches us that this goat atones for the same sin that Uzah and Azael were guilty of, immorality.

The Midrash (Pirkei d'Rebbi Eliezer, chap. 46, with the commentary Tiferes Tzion) says that "Azazel" refers to the Satan and demons. The Midrash is quick to point out that this does not mean that we send this goat as an offering to the Satan or as an offering to demons, because that would be outright idolatry.

It is interesting that the verse (Vayikra 17:7) which forbids us from demonic worship is found in the same parsha (Acharei Mos) as the two he-goats on Yom Kippur. This juxtaposition teaches us that the goat "La'Azazel" is not to be understood as a sacrifice to the demons. The understanding of this Midrash is as follows.

After Hashem gave the Torah to the Jewish people, the Satan lodged a complaint to Hashem claiming that God gave him power over all the nations of the world except for the Jewish people. The Satan wanted power over all the nations equally, including the Jews.

Hashem said that he would give Satan power over the Jews, but, only on one day a year, Yom Kippur. Even then, the Satan would only have power over them if he could find sin amongst the Jewish people.

In order that the Satan would not find any sins amongst the Jews, Hashem arranged that a "bribe" be sent to the Satan. The "bribe" is the goat. How does the goat serve as a bribe? This can be understood as follows.

The Hebrew word for "goat" is "seir." When the vowels of the word "seir" are changed, it spells "sei-ar" (hair). This hints at the hairy character in the Torah known as Eisav. Eisav even lived on Mount "Seir" (Bereishis 36:8), furthering his association to hair.

Therefore, the "Seir La'azazel" means that we are sending a message like a postcard to the Satan. The message is that the Jewish people's sins are not their fault, but the fault of the "seir" which is the "sei-ar" who is the hairy one, Eisav, and his descendants. The Eisavs throughout the ages have threatened us, pressured us, tortured us, murdered us, and even tempted us. We are so "hocked" and weakened by Eisav and the distractions that he has created that it has become almost impossible to not sin.

When Satan receives this message, he knows it is true. Therefore, he has no stomach to prosecute against us. This is the "bribe" we send to the Satan. It is a "defense" which protects the Jewish people.

There is yet another approach about these two goats, for which we will turn to a Mishnah in Yoma (chap. 6, "Shnei Seirei", pg. 62a). There it says that the two goats should be equal in color, height, cost, and they should be purchased at that same time.

Why is it necessary for them to be the same? After all, one of them is going to God, whereas the other one is going to the Satan. They seem to be diametrically opposed with two different paths in life. Maybe they should be different to show their dissimilar purposes.

To address all of this, let's speak about free will. The Torah says that we have free will to choose either good or evil (Devarim 30:15-19). The Shvilei Pinchas says that in order for us to be able to make such a choice, both the Yetzer Tov and the Yetzer Hara must be equally strong, because if one of them was stronger than the other, we would have no choice but to follow the stronger driving force within us.

This is why the Talmud (Succah chap. 5, "Hachalil", pg. 52a) says that as a person grows spiritually, his Yetzer Hara grows with him. This is in order to maintain balance which provides the platform for Man to choose. Therefore, when Hashem will slaughter the Yetzer Hara when Moshiach comes, the evil inclination will appear to the righteous as a huge mountain, whereas to the wicked, it will appear just as a hairs breadth (ibid). How could the same Yetzer Hara appear as two different things at the same time? One answer is based on this very teaching that the Yetzer Hara grows with the person's Yetzer Tov.

Since the righteous are constantly climbing the spiritual ladder of success and strengthening their Yetzer Tovs, their Yetzer Haras must also grow stronger with them, providing them with a constant opportunity to choose. However, since the wicked are constantly falling from one rung to the other weakening their Yetzer Tovs, their Yetzer Haras must also drop with them, getting weaker and weaker so that they are also afforded with an opportunity to make a choice at any given time.

The Tzidkas Hatzaddik (chap. 248; Reb Tzadok Hakohen Rabinowitz of Lublin, 1823-1900, Poland) adds that according to this Gemara, if you find a person who has a tremendous desire for spirituality, it tells us that this person also possesses an incredible drive for negativity. It's just that he directed that drive towards good. On the other hand, if you find a person with a huge proclivity towards negativity, it shows us that he also possesses an unbelievable drive for holiness.

This concept applied to Adam Harishon (the first person) also. The Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 8:1, Rebbi Hoshaya) says that Adam Harishon's spiritual stature was so great that when the angels saw him, they mistook him for Hashem and wanted to call him "Kadosh" (the Holy One).

If Adam was such a spiritual giant, his Yetzer Hara must have been equally gigantic. The verse testifies to this when it says that the serpent (which represented the Yetzer Hara) was "cunning beyond" any beast of the field that Hashem had made (Bereishis 3:1). This teaches us that the Yetzer Hara was beyond. He had to be in order to keep up with Adam Harishon whose spiritual stature was beyond.

However, once Adam and Chava (Eve) sinned, they fell drastically from their lofty level. As a result, their Yetzer Hara dropped with them. This is mentioned in the verse which says that God told the serpent that from now on he will have to crawl on his belly (Bereishis 3:14). The Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 20:5) extrapolates from this sentence that prior to this curse, the snake had legs, but Hashem had them cut off. On a deeper level, this teaches us that the Yetzer Hara (represented by the snake) was not as powerful as he was before so that Adam would always be provided an opportunity to choose.

Speaking of free choice, there seems to be a contradiction between two Talmudic passages. The first passage (Kidushin, chap. 1, "Ha-isha Niknis", pg. 30b) says that Hashem said to the Jewish people, "My children, I created the Yetzer Hara, and I created the Torah as its antidote. As long as you are involved in the study of Torah, you will not be delivered into its hands."

The implication of this passage is that we, on our own, have the ability to conquer our Yetzer Haras with the study of Torah.

However, in a second passage in the Talmud (ibid), Reish Lakish says that each and every day, a person's Yetzer Hara grows stronger, overpowering Man, and if not for God's assistance, we would have no capability at overcoming it.

The implication from this second passage is that we do not have the power on our own to conquer our Yetzer Haras, even with the study of Torah. Rather, we need Hashem's assistance. This is problematic. Which one is it?

The Shvilei Pinchas says that there is no contradiction. The first passage which implied that we do have the power of conquering the Yetzer Hara on our own is referring to the Yetzer Hara that Hashem created for Adam and Chava.

Adam was capable of making choices. His Yetzer Hara was outside of him, because inside, Adam Harishon was completely holy with no impulses driving him towards sin (See Rashi Bereishis 2:25; Nefesh Hachayim, Sha'ar Aleph, chap. 6, "Viha-inyan"). If so, how did the Yetzer get him to sin? An analogy can shed light on this.

We all have the ability to choose to put our hand in fire. We probably won't choose to do so because we are aware of the consequences. However, if somebody could convince us that it would be beneficial for us to put our hand in the fire, we would do it. We do it all the time. We would never let a person stab us and cut our bodies open, and yet we often allow ourselves to be put under the knife because we have been convinced that it is for our own good.

In order for the Yetzer Tov to get Adam to sin, he had to convince him that it was beneficial for him. The snake reasoned that if Adam and Eve were to eat from the tree, they would be like God (Bereishis 3:5). That is very tempting for such a spiritual people.

Even though Adam realized that he was playing with fire, he reasoned that it was for the greater good. This was an even battle between good and evil, but Adam chose evil. Adam should have told the serpent to wait a moment while he looked into the Torah (which Hashem already taught him in the Garden). Perhaps we could suggest that specifically Torah study helps a person conquer his Yetzer Hara, because Torah study aligns the brain with true reasoning. Once our heads are reasoning properly, we can begin to see the fallacies in the snake's arguments.

Proof of the fact that the first passage is referring to the Yetzer Hara that Hashem created, is found in the text of the Gemara itself. It says that God said to the Jews, "The Yetzer Hara that I created, etc." This wording ("That I created") means the Yetzer Hara that Hashem created originally. It was regarding this Yetzer Hara that the first passage claimed, "We can overcome it on our own with the study of Torah." (Shvilei Pinchas).

However, once Adam sinned, the Yetzer Hara entered inside of Adam. This empowered the Yetzer Hara, making him stronger than us, because now a person begins to identify himself with the negative urges that he experiences. He begins to think that he really is a bad person. This poor impression of himself can lead him to live up to this title and become the best bad person that he can be.

Additionally, with the Yetzer Hara becoming internal, it's hard to make a distinction between good and evil. Now, it's a mixed bag. We start to think that sins are mitzvos and that mitzvos are sins.

This empowered Yetzer Hara was not created by God, but by Man. It is with respect to this new and improved internal Yetzer Hara that the second passage said that we have no power on our own to defeat it. We need God's assistance. Although we created a Yetzer Hara which is too strong for us, Hashem, our Parent, bails us out by jacking up the Yetzer Tov so that it is on par with the Yetzer Hara in order to provide us with the opportunity of making choices once again.

The Shvilei Pinchas says that this explains the depth behind the two goats on Yom Kippur and why they should be identical. The essence of Yom Kippur is that it is a day of Teshuva (repentance) on past sins. There could be some Jews who think that it is not fair for them to have to fast and repent because sinning was not their fault. Some people may think that the Yetzer Hara is stronger than the Yetzer Tov. They might claim that they do not have control. Since Hashem created them that way, it's Hashem's problem. Not theirs.

In order that people should not think this way, Hashem commanded the Kohen Gadol to bring two goats. The one which was designated to "Hashem" represented the Yetzer Tov. The other one designated for "Azazel" represented the Yetzer Hara.

The reason why they should be identical is to teach us that both Yetzers (inclinations) are indeed equal. At the time of Creation they were really equal. But even after we sinned and made the Yetzer Hara stronger than the Yetzer Tov, Hashem steps in and strengthens the Yetzer Tov, bringing it up to par with the new and improved man made Yetzer Hara.

At the end of the day, both Yetzers are equal. This is the depth behind these two goats. They serve as a message to us. The message is that we can overcome our negative impulses, B'ezras Hashem. If we have already identified the Yetzer Hara, and if we have seen just how powerful it is, then we must also realize that we have an equally powerful Yetzer Tov!

What a comforting thing it is to know that we have incredible potential for positivity as well. How empowering it is to know that we could become Tzaddikim in the very areas we struggle with. This builds tremendous self-confidence and shapes our self-image into a healthy positive one that we can strive to live up to.

So, as a means of taking one message of Yom Kippur with us into the year, and into our lives, each morning we should look into a mirror and talk to ourselves. We should say, "I know I can, I know I can." We could add, "I realize that I have a very strong Yetzer Hara in such and such an area. However, I also realize that I must have a very strong Yetzer Tov in that very area. So, Hashem, please help me to overcome my negative proclivities."

Starting each day with this declaration can fill us with the self-confidence that can motivate us to take the measures necessary to win the battles that we struggle with.

So, may we all be blessed with the awareness of just how powerful our Yetzer Tovs are, and reach out to Hashem for assistance in overcoming our negative impulses, so that we belong to the camp of Tzaddikim, and live to witness the building of the third Beis Hamikdash, and see the return of the Avodah (service) of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur which will atone for all sins and remove the hairy Satan from us altogether, and thus return to the level of Adam and Chava before the sin.