The ritual of the Se’ir HaMishtalei’ach, the scapegoat, was performed once a year on Yom Kippur. Identical in size and appearance, two goats were presented before the Kohein Gadol, who would conduct a lottery to determine their fates. One goat would be designated for Hashem and offered as a Chatat, while the other would be for Azazeil, and would be sent (Mishtalei’ach ) into the wilderness after the Kohein Gadol confessed the sins of Bnei Yisrael over it.
Two main questions arise from this unique procedure: What is the meaning of Azazeil, and what is the meaning of this ritual?
Rashi (16:8 s.v. Azazeil) writes that Azazeil, a word that appears nowhere else in Tanach, means a “strong and harsh mountain with a high cliff.” For Rashi, Azazeil is a description of the goat’s destination. The Mishnah (Yoma 67a) explains that the goat would be led up a mountain and pushed off the side of a steep cliff, where it would fall to its death.
Using a Kabbalistic approach, Ramban suggests that Azazeil refers to a demon that had the power of negating the Avodah and preventing Bnei Yisrael from receiving atonement. The Se’ir HaMishtalei’ach was a bribe of sorts that would allow Bnei Yisrael to be forgiven. Quick to defend himself, Ramban insists that this practice is not Avodah Zarah. He compares this ritual to someone who prepares a feast for a king, and the king orders the host to provide some food for his slave. Similarly, the Se’ir HaMishtalei’ach is really intended for Hashem, but He orders us to offer it to the demon, who is, of course, subservient to Him. This, according to Ramban, is the meaning of the Se’ir HaMishtalei’ach.
Rambam takes a more rational approach in explaining the significance of the Se’ir HaMishtalei’ach. He writes in Moreh Nevuchim, “There is no doubt that sins cannot be carried like a burden, and taken off the shoulder of one being to be laid on that of another being. But these ceremonies are of a symbolic character, and serve to impress people with a certain idea, and to induce them to repent – as if to say, we have freed ourselves of our previous deeds, have cast them behind our backs, and removed them from us as far as possible”(III: 46). The sins of Bnei Yisrael were not actually transferred to the Se’ir HaMishtalei’ach; rather its banishment to the desert symbolizes the removal of sin. Only through this dramatic ritual would Bnei Yisrael feel as though they had distanced themselves from their past wrongdoings and would feel compelled to completely rededicate themselves to the Mitzvot.
The idea of abandoning past sins is also found in Mishneh Torah: “What is Teshuvah?” Rambam asks. “It is that the sinner abandons his sin and removes it from his thought and resolves in his heart never to commit it again” (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:2). Teshuvah is a transformative process. Rambam writes, “Among the means of Teshuvah are for the penitent to constantly shout before God with crying and pleading… and to distance himself very far from the thing in which he sinned, and to change his name, meaning to say, ‘I am someone else and I am not the same person who did those things…’” (2:4). Teshuvah requires an absolute change in behavior and a banishment of sinful activities, which is the idea that the Se’ir HaMishtalei’ach represents.
In one of his famous Teshuvah lectures, the Rav distinguished between Kapparah and Taharah. Kapparah, atonement, can be achieved by the Avodah without any effort on the part of the sinner to repent. His sin is removed and he is protected from divine punishment. “However, his personality remains contaminated, and this condition may be remedied only through ‘Tevilah,’ that is, by wholehearted repentance… without personal repentance Taharah is unthinkable” (Pinchas Peli translation of Al ha-Teshuva). The Rav elaborates on this idea, quoting the Gemara from Sanhedrin that discusses those who are disqualified as witnesses (gamblers, usurers, and pigeon racers are among that list). “When are they considered to have repented (and thus become qualified to be witnesses)? Gamblers… when they break up their dice and undergo a complete reformation to the extent that they will not even play recreationally. Usurers – when they tear up their bills and undergo a complete reformation to the extent that they will not lend interest even to a Nochri. Pigeon racers… when they break their pigeon traps and undergo a complete reformation to the extent that they will not even race in the desert (where there is no one to see or pay)” (Sanhedrin 25b). Taharah, the complete forgiveness of sin, is possible only once one commits to distance oneself as far away as possible from those misdeeds.
The Se’ir HaMishtalei’ach perfectly symbolizes the idea of Teshuvah Shel Taharah: the firm resolve to banish all sinful acts from one’s behavior and to devote oneself to Hashem and His Mitzvot. In Selichot we recite the Pasuk from Yeshayahu: “Machiti Cha’av Pesha’echa VeCheAnan Chatotecha Shuvah Eilay Ki Ge’alticha,” “I have erased your sins as a mist and your transgressions as a cloud, return to Me for I have redeemed you! (44:22). When the effort is made to purify the personality from sin and completely transform one’s very being, sins will be forgiven and forgotten, allowing us to return fully to Hashem.