What Kind of Goat Are You?

This week’s Dvar Torah on Acharei Mot is written by Dr. Sandra Lilienthal, one of our talented Melton & More faculty members. She will be teaching two Summer mini-courses "We Are What we Remember: The Ever-Evolving Transmission of Jewish History" and "Gender and Its Influence in the Bible.” Visit https://caje-miami.org/adults/ to learn more.

In this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot, we read about the Yom Kippur ceremony of Biblical times. This was a very special day, as it was the only day the high priest, Aharon, was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies to bring atonement for himself, his family, and the Children of Israel. 

While there is much in the story that we could discuss, I would like to focus on a seemingly strange ritual performed – the taking of two identical goats, one of which would be offered to God, and the other would be for Azazel, the choice being made by throwing lots.

In the beautifully crafted Melton Vayikra/Leviticus curriculum, an entire session is devoted to this ritual with commentators trying to understand why we need two identical goats, why the decision of what happens to each one is made by lottery, and – maybe the most important question for us, Jews of the 21st century: So what?! What can this ritual possibly mean in today’s world?

For some commentators, the goats and the process of choice remind us of our own life: when we enter this world, our fate is unknown. While we do have some control over how we live our life, what we do and when, some of it is pure luck or a random lottery: were we born to a wealthy family or a poor family? Were we born with a health disadvantage, whether physical or mental? That is not something we choose. The goats, having their lives decided by pure chance, would then represent the human condition – what happens to us is a question of luck.

Other commentators say that the lottery may seem random to us, but that in truth, it is G-d who determines which lot will be given to each goat just as G-d determines our fate.

One of my favorite commentaries, though, is from Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-1888) who says we are all like the goats. We look the same, and deep down, we are all the same, made from the same source – G-d. The Azazel ritual, says Hirsch, teaches us that we can choose to use our power to come closer to G-d or to remove ourselves from G-d.

Each and every one of us sins, possibly a few times a day. The Jewish concept of sin, though, is that of “missing the mark.” Most of us are not fully righteous as much as we are not fully wicked. We are good people, trying to do what is right, but frequently missing the mark: we eat that which we know is not healthy for us; we open our lips to say words our brain has told us to hold inside; we lose our patience when it is clear that keeping calm would bring us better results. We are but human, and we make mistakes.

On Yom Kippur, and on any other day of the year, we can look at ourselves as the goat which merits to be sent away, the goat that does not deserve to be close to G-d. Or, we can look at ourselves as the goat who is to be offered to G-d as a korban.

The word korban, usually translated as a sacrifice, comes from the root ק.ר.ב (kuf-resh-vet), which means “close.” Our sacrifices or offerings to G-d were a way to bring us closer to the Source of Life. In that sense, the goat that is to be offered to G-d is symbolic of an inner process of recognition of our errors, our desire to distance ourselves from our mistakes, and our resolve to reconnect to our spiritual source.

We are like the goats in this week’s parasha only to a certain extent. We are not passive, and our resolve to be better today than we were yesterday is not left to chance – it requires action on our part. Yes – our mistakes may remove us from the Divine. But our desire to become closer to G-d and to the ideal being G-d had in mind when He created humankind, will ultimately bring us atonement and a feeling of being whole (שָׁלֵם – shalem) and at peace (שָׁלוֹם – shalom).

Shabbat Shalom!


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