12. The Two Goats

Now that we have explored the meaning of the atonement achieved by sprinkling the blood, let us explain the mitzva of the two goats, through which the primary atonement of Yom Kippur is achieved, by examining the pertinent verses: “From the Israelite community he shall take two he-goats for a sin offering” (Vayikra 16:5). The Sages explain that the two goats are introduced together to teach that they must be of identical appearance, size, and worth (Shevu’ot 13b). The casting of lots would determine which goat was sacrificed to God and which was sent to Azazel; divine providence is most readily apparent in what seems like fate.

Before casting the lots, the Kohen Gadol had to purify himself. Thus, he leaned on the bull designated as his sin offering and confessed his sins and his wife’s sins. Then:

Aharon shall take the two he-goats and let them stand before the Lord at the entrance of the Ohel Mo’ed; and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked “for the Lord” and the other marked “for Azazel.” Aharon shall bring forward the goat designated by lot for the Lord, which he is to offer as a sin offering [i.e., he brought it to the place designated for the slaughter of sin offerings]; while the goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be left standing alive before the Lord, to make atonement with it and to send it off to the wilderness for Azazel. (Vayikra 16:7-10)

The Kohen Gadol again approached the bull designated as his sin offering, leaned on it, and confessed the sins of the rest of the kohanim. He then slaughtered the bull so he could sprinkle its blood in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim. However, to permit his entry into the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, it was first necessary to burn the incense there, expressing thereby the covenantal bond between God and Israel. After offering the incense, the Kohen Gadol sprinkled the bull’s blood in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim. He then returned to the goat designated for God, slaughtered it, and sprinkled its blood in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim to atone for the defilement of the Temple and its sacrifices. As the Torah describes:

He shall then slaughter the people’s goat of sin offering, bring its blood beyond the parokhet, and do with its blood as he has done with the blood of the bull: he shall sprinkle it over the kaporet [i.e., one upward] and in front of the kaporet [seven downward]. Thus he shall atone for the Kodesh from the impurity and transgression of the Israelites, whatever their sins; and he shall do the same for the Ohel Mo’ed, which abides with them in the midst of their impurity [by sprinkling blood on the parokhet]. When he goes in to make atonement in the Kodesh, nobody else shall be in the Ohel Mo’ed until he comes out. When he has atoned for himself and his household, and for the whole congregation of Israel, he shall go out to the altar that is before the Lord [i.e., the incense altar] and atone for it: he shall take some of the blood of the bull and of the goat and apply it to each of the horns of the altar; and the rest of the blood he shall sprinkle on it with his finger seven times. Thus he shall purify it of the defilement of the Israelites and consecrate it. (Ibid. 15-19)

With the completion of the atonement for defiling the Temple and its sacrifices, the soul of Israel was revealed in its purity. It became clear that all the sins clinging to it were due solely to the external influence of the evil impulse. Accordingly, the Kohen Gadol, representing all of Israel, could confess those sins, shake them off, and transfer them onto the scapegoat, which was sent to a desolate, isolated place in the desert. Thus, we read:

When he has finished atoning for the Kodesh, the Ohel Mo’ed, and the altar, the live goat shall be brought forward. Aharon shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man. Thus the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be cast away in the wilderness. (Ibid. 20-22)

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Translated By:
Series Editor: Rabbi Elli Fischer

The Laws of Shabbat (1+2) - Yocheved Cohen
The Laws of Prayer - Atira Ote
The Laws of Women’s Prayer - Atira Ote
The Laws of Pesach - Joshua Wertheimer
The Laws of Zemanim - Moshe Lichtman

Editor: Nechama Unterman