Aharon shall place lots upon the two goats: one lot “for G-d” and one lot “for Azazel.” Aharon shall bring close the goat designated by lot for G-d and make it a sin-offering. And the goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be stood alive before G-d, to provide atonement though it, to send it to Azazel into the wilderness.
One of the most puzzling and disturbing rituals in Jewish practice is the goat “for Azazel” of Yom Kippur. Two goats are brought before the Kohein Gadol, the High Priest. By lot, one is chosen to be placed upon the altar as a sin-offering, and the other is chosen to be taken out into the desert and thrown alive off the edge of a sheer cliff.
What possible purpose could reside in such a practice?
In truth, the symbolism of this ritual is astonishingly simple and frighteningly relevant. The two goats, identical in every way, symbolize the two possible futures of a single human being. Like the two goats that appear indistinguishable from one another, the path any one of us will choose cannot be determined when we are young. Every child demonstrates qualities of virtue, and every child demonstrates qualities of selfishness. Which character will win out in the end can never be predicted with certainty.
Only over the course of a lifetime will it become evident whether the individual has chosen the path of righteousness, dedicating his life “to G-d,” like the goat offered up on the altar, or has chosen the path of wickedness, wandering through life into the spiritual wasteland of moral confusion and making himself into an offering “to Azazel.”
Rav Hirsch explains that the name Azazel can be understood as a composite of two words: az azal— “wasted strength.” Rather than devoting his life to the ways of virtue defined by G-d’s law, a person may use his human potential for self-serving ends, for pleasure seeking, for ego-gratification. By doing so, he squanders the resources of physical health, intellegence, and imagination for temporal rewards that leave him with nothing of value to show for his efforts. He will have wasted his life, as surely as the life of the goat flung over the precipace in the wilderness comes to a wasted end.
And, like that goat, his life will have served no purpose except as a warning to others. On this Day of Atonement, we have the opportunity to reflect upon our past and our future, to contemplate the awesome indictments of the Day of Judgment that we have only just survived, and to consider how we might still soften the verdict of the Celestial Court in determining our fate for the coming year. Will we choose to offer ourselves on the altar of divine service by committing ourselves to take greater care in our speech, in our actions, and in our thoughts, to show more consideration for our fellow men and conduct ourselves with modesty and humility? Or will we continue on as we have, like the goat wandering blindly into the wilderness of oblivion, persisting in the habits of spiritual and moral insensitivity that will lead us to the brink of eternal devastation?
It should be an easy choice. In fact, it’s as easy or as difficult as we make it.