G‑dliness Is A Mutually Exclusive Endeavor
By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Jax, FL


Pronunciation: \ˈskāp-ˌgōt\

Function: noun

Etymology: scape; intended as translation of Hebrew ʽazāzēl, as if ʽēz 'ōzēl goat that departs—Lev 16:8(Authorized Version)

Date: 1530

1: a goat upon whose head are symbolically placed the sins of the people after which he is sent into the wilderness in the biblical ceremony for Yom Kippur

2 a: one that bears the blame for others b: one that is the object of irrational hostility – Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary  

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Most everyone is familiar with the term “scapegoat.” Still, not everyone is aware of its legendary Biblical origins.

Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, is devoted to atonement and spiritual rededication. The many observances of the day, such as increased and intensified prayer and the various forms of self denial – Including a twenty-four-hour prohibition against all food and drink – are rather familiar concepts, especially among Jews. Yet, some of the ancient observances associated with this awesome day are not as well known.

When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem in all its majesty and glory, the day of Yom Kippur was observed through an intricate series of rituals preformed by the high priest in the sacred House of the Lord. One of the more dramatic annual services is known as the ritual of "The two goats."

On the Day of Atonement two indistinguishable members of the above mentioned species were brought before the High Priest, who placed a randomly-pulled lot on the head of each one. One read "To G‑d" and the other, "To Azazel" – the name of a steep cliff in a barren desert.

As instructed in the first of this week’s double Torah reading, Achrei Mos – the portion that is actually read on the day of Yom Kippur – the first goat was to be solemnly sacrificed in the Temple, the second was to be taken to the cliff of its name and thrown off, dying unceremoniously before it even reached the bottom.

While the intriguing "Two goats" ritual seems shrouded in mystery, with rather little offered by way of explanation, it is not, I suspect, due to a lack of importance. It is more than obvious that any ceremony which the Torah dictates, especially one that is preformed in the Holy Temple, and not just at any time but on the holiest day of the year, by the High Priest, does not lack in significance.

It is especially important to try to understand the meaning of this command in light of its strange nature and the many questions it raises, not the least of which is the issue of animal cruelty.

As with all aspects of Torah, there are, no doubt, many layers of insight regarding this unique and mysterious Mitzvah, albeit not as readily accessible as with some of the other Divine precepts. What I propose here is a rather basic and somewhat apparent message.

The Talmud (Yoma 62a) instructs that the two Yom Kippur goats are required to be identical in appearance, size and value.  We are furthermore instructed that the two must be chosen together at the very same time. The goats had to be equal. But why would the goats need to be identical, especially when their purpose was so different?

The answer it appears, is that they are intended to exemplify two sides of the same entity. The entity, of course, being the human species and the Jew in particular. The goat sent into the wilderness was hence called a goat "For Azazel." The commentaries explain that the name Azazel is an acronym for “zeh le'umas zeh asa Elokim,” G‑d has made one in contrast to the other. For something to qualify as a contrast it must share essential common qualities.

The lesson of the Yom Kippur goats is that there are two distinct paths for each human being to live his life, and they are as mutually exclusive as they are divergent, the path of G‑d or the path of Azazel.

Every person has two possible options as to how he should live. One path is the path of Torah and spirituality. This path draws its followers closer to G‑d. The second path is the path of a "Free life,” a life full of earthly indulgences and a love of this world. This path is very far from one consisting of Torah study and Divine observance.

The goat that becomes a sacrifice on the Temple altar symbolizes a life of Divine dedication and service, which ultimately culminates in fusion with its eternal Divine source, and as such, eternal spiritual existence.

Its partner, by contrast, whom the Torah describes as “laden with the sins of the people,” finds its fate in a desolate, unholy place, plummeting towards complete abolition. The latter depicts the persistent deterioration and ultimate extinction of the spirit that results from the absence of Divine purpose and the inherent destruction that stems from its alternative: self centeredness.

Of course, the sad end of our selfish lifestyle of hedonism and indulgence is not always apparent. One could only imagine the thoughts that flashed through the mind of the Azazel goat as it watched its pious partner being sacrificed to G‑d on the holy altar. One could only imagine its sense of superiority as it readied itself for its upcoming romantic excursion to the exotic outbacks.

The indulgent, pleasure driven, wise guy, was no doubt musing how his poor, naïve sucker for a partner, died  just as he had lived; a complete sacrifice to G‑d; a pitiful Shlimazel. What a shame! What a waste of a life! But he? He was cool; he was going places. He would live it up until the end! But little did he know where his life was heading. . .

Those who desire the free life - free of the "restrictions" imposed by the Heavenly creator, do not end up with the blissful life they anticipated for themselves – sadly their life is often more reminiscent of goat for Azazel.

The first path, on the other hand, though it demands effort and discipline is actually far from devoid of pleasure and reward. It is in fact rewarding in both this world as well as in the world-to-come.

Through the dramatic ritual of the two Yom Kippur goats, G‑d, in His infinite mercy and kindness, wishes to wake us up from our exotic fantasies and bring us back to reality. He wishes to alert us to the unattractive end of a life devoted to selfishness, decadence and pleasure and devoid of holiness and spirituality.   

Most importantly however This pivotal service teaches us is that the two paths of life are mutually exclusive. This is to say that one’s existence can either be G‑d oriented and hence bound for eternal spiritual reward, or self oriented, and the corollary follows directly: Azazel.

Since the destruction of the Holy Temple, we may lack the actual goat service, we can however, certainly learn the profound message behind the Torah’s eternal command regarding this awesome ritual.

We all start out with certain similarities. We each then have decisions to make and paths to choose. Often one path seems wrought with sacrifice and pain - the other blissful and serene.

We're often plagued with questions. Why give up pleasures? Why restrain ourselves? Why not get all that we can out of life? We each realize that it's the struggles and sacrifices in life which reveal and build our strengths as individuals. The easy path is rarely the fulfilling one. That which seems so tempting and easy is often catastrophic; it won't lead to the inner sanctum, serenity, fulfillment and holiness.

By our taking the proper lesson of the goats – seeing through this world of illusion and recognizing the underlying truths and choosing our paths wisely and insightfully, we will bring our purpose for creation into fruition, as well as that of the entire universe. The latter will hasten the rebuilding of the majestic Temple and the eradication of all sin from the face of the earth forever, with the coming of the righteous Moshiach BBA.


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The following is a deeper glimpse into the Kabalistic insights on this highly mysterious Yom Kippur ritual, based on the teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria. ([i])

“The mystical significance of Azazel is ‘Samael’ and the ‘Nukva of the luminous shell’ [Klipat Noga] to whom the goat is given. . . This evil is transformed for the Jews on Yom Kippur into the defending counsel by virtue of the good which is present within it, as explained in the Zohar (III:101).”

For those who are unfamiliar, Samael is the angel whose job is to obstruct us from doing Mitzvos, so that we have the chance to overcome him and serve G‑d as a matter of will, and earn thereby reward in the World-to-Come.

“It is known that the ‘luminous shell’ is half good and half evil; it is what separates the holy realm from the totally evil.”

There are basically four levels of spiritual impurity, the least potent of which is called "Nogah." In fact, Nogah is the level that separates between the holy and the profane, and therefore is itself half good and half evil. The nature of sin is based upon which level of spiritual impurity by which one has become enveloped.

The four realms of evil are called "shells," contrasting with the fruit or meat of the nut within the shell, which signifies the holy realms. The significance of this imagery is that, just as the shell, which obscures the fruit within it, is inedible and must be discarded, so does evil obscure the power of holiness in the world; we must break through it and reject it in order to reveal goodness.

Three of the four realms of evil are totally unable to be assimilated. The fourth realm, however, is neutral. This is to say that although it is a priori evil, meaning that it is evil only insomuch as it is not oriented by nature toward G‑d, it can, however, be absorbed and elevated into holiness if it is used for holy purposes. Conversely, if it is used for evil purposes, it descends into and becomes part of the three unholy realms.

Kosher food for example, is in the realm of the ‘luminous shell.’ It is neither holy nor evil; what it will become depends on how it is used. If it is consumed for holy purposes, e.g., to add to the enjoyment of Shabbat, or to energize oneself in order to serve G‑d, the food then existentially enters the realm of holiness. If, on the other hand, it is eaten for coarse purposes, e.g. to indulge in sensual pleasure, it descends into the realm of evil. This neutral realm of evil is called the ‘luminous shell.’

“When a person transgresses, this neutral realm serves to complete the three evil shells of his evil inclination to become absolutely evil.”

When an element of the “luminous shell” is given over to the three completely evil shells, it "completes" them into a unit of four, mirroring the four worlds of holiness. This reinforcement of evil makes it a more difficult force to reckon with. It is the intrinsic punishment for evil behavior, as the sages assert: "A Mitzvah begets another Mitzvah, and a sin leads to another sin." (Avos 4:2)

“The forces of evil pursue holiness so as to sustain and enliven themselves, for in its absence they would perish, hence the grave importance not to allow the siphoning of holiness into Klipah.

On Yom Kippur however, G‑d in His kindness, permitted and instructed us to send Samael one goat. The gift represents the idea of repentance. Though good and evil were originally intertwined, the evil is now identified and separated in the luminous shell; it clings to the goat and disappears into complete evil. The good, meanwhile, returns to the realm of supernal holiness, no longer part of the luminous shell.”

Being a prosecuting angel, Samael is ordinarily attentive to his arid occupation. However, upon receiving the Azazel goat, he is thrown off and somehow transformed into a willing advocate.

“It is a great joy for Samael to receive the goat of Azazel, especially since it was sent completely willingly, and it did not require any effort or trouble on his part! But he is a fool and makes a critical mistake. He will in fact ‘Be heaping coals on his own head’ (Proverbs 25:22).

Since, in its original state, evil was intermixed in the luminous shell, it provided the evil a foothold by forcing the Supernal holiness to grant it beneficence on account of the inherent good within Klipat Noga.”

When evil shares the luminous shell with good, it can more readily seduce man into sin, since it does not have to entice him into an explicit prohibition - only into using a neutral aspect of reality for egotistic purposes.

“But now that evil has been separated from the good, Samael has lost a vital advantage acquired by the good. Accordingly, it follows that Samael has been tricked and has suffered a great loss. Indeed, a situation that was originally to its favor is now the opposite. The goodness of the luminous shell has now become united with the holy soul of the person, thereby completing it, while Samael has entirely lost all advantage.”

While the goat began as a mixture of good and evil, allowing the impurities to draw from the side of holiness, the teshuvah of the Kohen Gadol causes the good to separate from the "clutches" of the side of impurity. This frees the good to gravitate to the side of holiness, denying the impurities any source of sustenance.

“This is the definition of teshuvah, to separate out from [the goat] the good part, because it is impossible for it to remain as it was before the sin, a mixture of good and evil. For, sinning strengthens evil and subjugates the good within.

Now, however, the evil within it that is completely spent, adheres to the goat and goes out to the impurities completely. The good, on the other hand returns to holiness above, and not to the impurity of Nogah.

The Yom Kippur service was specifically about accelerating this process of separation of good from the bad.



[i]Adapted from Likutei Torah Parashas Acharei Mos; (adapted version), by Moshe-Yaakov Wisnefsky. Published in "Apples From the Orchard.”