13. The Meaning of the Scapegoat’s Atonement

There are two reasons why goats specifically were used for atonement. First, from an interior perspective, goat blood resembles human blood more than that of any other animals. This finds expression in the exceptional vitality of he-goats, and the sprinkling of their blood in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim expresses Israel’s yearning to cling to God devotedly. Second, from an external perspective, goats tend to be wild and destructive. The angel of destructive forces and the guardian angel of the wicked Esav are called “se’ir” – goat – because their specialty is destruction and mayhem. When idolaters wanted to save themselves from destruction or wreak destruction on their enemies, they offered sacrifices to goat-like deities, gods of evil and destruction. Therefore, the Torah warns Israel that they must offer their sacrifices to God alone: “They may offer their sacrifices no more to the goat-demons after whom they stray” (Vayikra 17:7; Ramban on 16:8).

On the holy and awesome day of Yom Kippur, when the eternal covenant between God and Israel is revealed, and Israel elevate themselves by fasting and refraining from all bodily desires, the Kohen Gadol could enter the Kodesh Ha-kodashim in the name of all Israel and sprinkle the blood of a goat before God, thus expressing the inner desire of all Israel to cleave devotedly to God, His Torah, and His mitzvot. Israel were thereby purified from the defilement of the Temple and its sacrifices. As a result, the kelipot (“husks”) that prevent the light of faith from illuminating their souls were removed. Good and evil, which had been intermingled within them, were now distinct. It became clear that all the sins they had committed were external to them, the result of evil influences that misled them to believe that they would gain by sinning. In truth, these sins wasted their energies, while providing them with no benefit at all. Once evil is separated from good, it loses its power and can no longer lead people astray. For it is only when evil is intermingled with good and life that it can destroy and devastate; when evil is isolated, it returns to its desolate place and fades away. This was expressed in the sending of the scapegoat with Israel’s sins to Azazel in the desert, a desolate and isolated place.

Another profound idea is expressed through the scapegoat sent to Azazel: It was a gift that God commanded us to send on Yom Kippur to Samael, the angel of destruction and mayhem, who dwells in the desert, a place of desolation and devastation. To make it clear that this was not an act of worship, the Torah emphasizes: “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 16:10). We see that the goat stood “before the Lord,” and it was God Who commanded us to send it away in order to atone for Israel. In the formulation of the Midrash:

Samael said to the Holy One: “Master of all worlds, You gave me power over all the nations of the world, but not over Israel?!” God responded, “You have power over them on Yom Kippur if they have any sin; but if they do not, you have no power over them.” Therefore, we bribe [Samael] on Yom Kippur so that he will not prevent Israel from offering their sacrifice. (Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer 46)

Let us delve deeper into this. All year long we struggle with the evil impulse, but on Yom Kippur, when the Kohen Gadol enters the Kodesh Ha-kodashim to bind all Israel to the root of faith, it becomes possible for Israel to consider the entire world from a broad, complete perspective. We can see that the forces of evil are also created by God and have a function; it is because of them that human beings have free will, so it is due to them that people can grow, attain higher levels, and give expression to the image of the divine within them. Nevertheless, these thoughts about the positive value of evil can end up being destructive. People can fool themselves into thinking that when they sin, they are really doing something good. Therefore, only on Yom Kippur, when we deprive ourselves and refrain from all bodily pleasures, did God command us to send a goat to Azazel. Only on Yom Kippur can we show Samael that we understand his importance without being tempted by him. At that moment, Samael is gratified that Israel finally understands him. For the rest of the day, he no longer wants to tempt and accuse us, for he really wants Israel to choose good. He even joins in the effort of defending us.[3]


[3]. The midrash goes on to describe Samael’s defense of the Jews:

Samael saw that they were without sin on Yom Kippur. He said to God: “Master of all worlds, You have one nation that is like the ministering angels in heaven. Just as the ministering angels do not eat or drink, so too, the Jews do not eat or drink on Yom Kippur. Just as the ministering angels go barefoot, so too, the Jews go barefoot on Yom Kippur…. Just as peace reigns among the ministering angels, so too, peace reigns among the Jews on Yom Kippur. Just as the ministering angels are free of all sin, so too, the Jews are free of all sin on Yom Kippur.” God hears the prosecutor petitioning on Israel’s behalf, and he forgives them… (Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer 46)

Maharal, at the end of his homily for Shabbat Shuva, emphasizes an interpretation of evil that views it as absence and lack, as I write in my first explanation in the main text. So states Sefer Ha-hinukh §95 as well. Ramban’s commentary to Vayikra 16:8 follows Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer in emphasizing the bribery theme.

  1. Levi in the Talmud also understands the accuser in a positive light: “The accuser and Penina both had good intentions. When the accuser saw that God was inclined to favor Iyov, he objected: ‘God forbid that He should forget His love for Avraham and Israel!’ (This is why the accuser argued that Iyov was not as perfect as Avraham.) Penina, as it is written (1 Shmuel 1:6), ‘her rival would taunt her to make her miserable” (i.e., Penina taunted Ḥanna so she would pray to God). R. Aḥa taught this idea in Epiphania, and the accuser came and kissed his feet (Bava Batra 16a) – in gratitude for explaining his good intentions.

Nevertheless, the plain meaning of the midrash is that the scapegoat is a bribe in the ordinary sense of the word. Since the forces of evil follow the path of falsehood, trickery, and flattery, we give them a taste of their own medicine with the scapegoat, and they forget their accusations and enjoy the bribe. Thus, we read in the Zohar on Aḥarei Mot, “When the goat reached the mountain [in the wilderness], how happy [the evil forces were]. They were all intoxicated and became sweet-tempered from it, and the accuser who went to prosecute Israel reversed himself and praised them instead. The prosecutor became a defender” (Zohar III 63a). However, this, too, can be understood in a deeper way: The evil forces are elevated to a higher level and remove their masks, showing that they, too, want what is best for the world. Since they are permitted to take a day off from their evil mission, they are happy to come to the defense of Israel.

Perhaps both interpretations of this midrash are correct, each applying to a different scenario. If Israel repent out of fear, then the scapegoat served as a bribe in the plain sense, but if they repent out of love, then just as knowing sins are transformed into merits, so too, the forces of evil are turned into good. This idea may be implied by Zohar, Ra’aya Mehemna on Aḥarei Mot (III 63a-b), which declares that the evil inclination is “very good” (Bereishit 1:31). However, the Zohar goes on to say that the accuser continues to fulfill his role on Yom Kippur, but since all of Israel’s sins were cast to Azazel, the accuser finds Israel free of sin, and he thus comes to their defense. This leads to the cancellation of harsh judgments against the Jews. An additional passage from Zohar (II 184b-185a, on Tetzaveh) compares the scapegoat to a banquet given to an accuser so that he does not disturb the king’s joy in spending time with his son. This banquet is also a sort of bribe, as it blinds the accuser. His accusations rebound on him and his wicked legions. The midrash is thus correct on both levels. As long as the world has not reached ultimate perfection, the inner goodness of evil – the essence of repentance out of love – remains secret. What is recognizable is repentance out of fear. On that level, the scapegoat served as a bribe, tricking the accuser into defending Israel against his will.

Since the person who took the scapegoat to the wilderness encountered the forces of evil, he had to purify himself afterward, as we read, “He who set the Azazel-goat free shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water; after that he may re-enter the camp” (Vayikra 16:28). Zohar on Aḥarei Mot states that the person chosen for this job was especially capable of dealing with the forces of evil (Zohar III 63b), which would explain why he had to purify himself afterward. Even if we contend that the positive aspect of evil was revealed at that moment, as long as the world has not reached ultimate perfection, this is a dangerous secret. Therefore, the man who carried the scapegoat still had to immerse before returning to the camp. See further on this in the book by my friend R. Moshe Odess, Ve-hashev et Ha-avoda, ch. 5. In chapters 2 and 3 he presents a comprehensive overview of the Yom Kippur avoda and explains that the functions of the bull, the goat, and the incense are intertwined. Each stage is a prerequisite for the next one. I have incorporated his important explanations into this chapter.

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