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Shabbat Parshat Acharei Mot 5779

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The Two Goats and Things We Don’t Understand

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5776

What do you do when you come across an idea or source that you have trouble digesting, or seems counter to what you think Judaism believes?

That question has been nagging me for the last two weeks. Over Pesach I reread the commentary of the Ramban explaining the 2 goat ceremony that is performed on Yom Kippur.

Two goats are presented to the Cohen Gadol who draws lots to decide which one is Lashem and which is l’azazel. The Goat lashem is sacrificed in the Temple and the goat l’azazel is sent out to the desert.

It is certainly a strange ceremony. It is especially interesting because that goat leaves the temple. Nearly everything else on Yom Kippur happens in the Beit Hamikdash.

What does it all mean?

The Rambam (16/8) quotes from Pirkei D’rabbi Eliezer “therefore we give the goat to Samael as a bribe on Yom Kippur” so that he should not nullify our sacrifices.

If that is not crazy enough he goes on explain that: there were those who sacrificed to other Gods, to the angels.

Now the Torah categorically prohibited accepting them as Gods and worshiping them, yet on this day there is an exception. Hashem commanded us to send a goat to the angel/minister who rules the places of desolation and destruction, as he is in charge of the stars of the sword and bloodshed, war, bitterness, wounds, dispersion and destruction. He is in charge of the goats, and the sheidim, demons if you will.

Thus we give him a bribe to ward off those things within his realm!

At this point the Ramban begins to backtrack because he knows that this sounds like crazy idolatry.

He writes: this not a sacrifice God forbid, rather our intention should be to fulfill the will of Hashem. It is analogous to one who prepares a feast for his master and the master then instructs the preparer to give a portion to one of his servants.

And this is why there are lots – we don’t want to verbally designate the animal because that will sound like a sacrifice.

And that is why it is outside the temple – it is not a sacrifice. And we don’t slaughter it…

Despite the backtracking and clarification – that is still hard to digest. Are we really meant to bribe the angel of destruction and calamity on Yom Kippur?!

Rashbam offers an alternative. He writes (verse 10) that according to the literal read of the text, the goat l’azazel is not killed. Rather it is simply sent out to the desert and allowed to live.

And the Rashbam notes, we have a parallel for such a service, the two birds that are a part of the purification of the leper. 2 chapters earlier we read that to purify the leper we take 2 birds and one is sacrificed and the other is וְשִׁלַּ֛ח אֶת־הַצִּפֹּ֥ר הַֽחַיָּ֖ה עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַשָּׂדֶֽה – is sent out to the field. Parenthetically, the word vesheelach is used by the goat as well.

In the context of the Metzora the meaning of the ceremony is clear. When we generally think of the Temple we think of Kedusha or holiness, which connotes separation from the mundane and the world.

For the Metzora we are attempting to accomplish Tahara – purification, which happens in the world. Thus the bird is sent out into the world to symbolize the purity we will achieve in that world.

Chizkuni actually suggests that the leper was segregated because of his or her sin and is now able to rejoin the world and community hopefully purified and able to function properly in society.

If we transport that message back to Yom Kippur it would go as follows. Yes nearly everything that happens on Yom Kippur happens in the Temple with Hashem but there must be more. We must take the lessons of the day back with us to the world and our regular routine. We must try and achieve purity in addition to atonement.

As tempted as I am to adopt this read, it is not simple textually and it does not help me with the Ramban who is a personality that one cannot ignore.

Others have their own suggestions for the ritual – Rambam offers one in the Guide and Hirsch offers a beautiful one in his commentary. The Rav in Al Hateshuva tries to reread the Ramban to read more like the former.

But still the Ramban nags at me…

How can he suggest and believe such a thing?

The answer is – I don’t know. Where does that leave me?

With 2 ideas or themes that come back to a lot.

  1. In the world of Jewish thought and commentary there is not necessarily a right answer and within the world of acceptable opinions you get to choose the one that speaks to you. And in this case I clearly side with Rambam over Ramban.
  2. We are allowed to believe different things as Orthodox Jews. We don’t all have to be the same. As crazy as what the Ramban writes is, he remains a mainstay in so many areas of Jewish thought and law. We have not thrown him out of the Beis midrash.

This is a lesson that is so important in terms of how we relate to Jews and how we relate to the Jewish community.