The Lesson of the He-goat by Rabbi Michael Hoenig


In Parashat Acharei Mot, Hashem tells Moshe the laws of Yom Kippur to tell over to Aharon. Hashem tells Moshe that at the start of Yom Kippur day, the Kohen Gadol would select two he-goats that would provide atonement for the Jewish people. One goat, the Sa’ir LaShem, would be gathered up in holy vessels and brought into the Kodesh HaKodashim in order to serve as a national sin offering. The other goat, the Sa’ir LaAzazeil, would not gain admission into the Kodesh HaKodashim; instead, it would be sent into the desert. In order to determine the status of each goat, the Kohen Gadol would place two lots in a box, one marked “LaShem” and one marked “LaAzazeil.” Then, while having one goat to his left and one goat to his right, he would draw one lot with his right hand and place it on the head of the animal at his right, and take the other lot with his left hand and place it on the other goat.

          Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch beautifully explains the underlying meaning and depth of this event. There were many similarities between the Sa’ir Lashem and Sa’ir LaAzazeil: The two he-goats were similar in appearance, height, and value (Shevuot 13b). Additionally, at the threshold of the Kodesh HaKodashim, they were identical creatures who ultimately proceeded on two entirely different paths. Lastly, both goats had the possibility of having either status.

          Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch continues by saying that the he-goat represents the power of resistance.  Each one of us is a Sa’ir that has the ability to resist and oppose the countless demands made on our willpower. Rav Hirsch explains that “it is on the way we use this power that the worthiness or worthlessness of our moral existence depends.” We can use this power to attach to Hashem by resisting all external and internal temptations which deviate us from Hashem. This positive resistance would label us a Sa’ir LaShem. Conversely, we can use our willpower to disobey Hashem and the Mitzvot which He requires us to do, thus labeling us a Sa’ir LaAzazeil.

          We live in a temptation-filled world that often times causes people to become like the Sa’ir LaAzazeil. There are also some people who desperately yearn to be free of an evil inclination and have the opportunity to serve Hashem with more ease and comfort. They feel that a life without constant pitfalls would allow them to reach a more elevated existence. However, as we see from the he-goats, this should not be our way of looking at life. Rav Hirsch notes that “the whole height and dignity and worth of human beings lies just in the ability to sin, in the possibility which has been given to him to disobey the will of Hashem.” The equal ability to be both a Sa’ir LaShem and a Sa’ir LaAzazeil is the very reason that man can reach exalted heights.

          At each and every moment of the day and every stage of life, we have the opportunity to be LaShem or LaAzazeil. The decision to be like the Sa’ir LaShem only has meaning and value because at the same moment, we could have swayed to be like the Sa’ir LaAzazeil. Conversely, the decision to be like the Sa’ir LaAzazeil is a disgrace only because at the same moment, we could have become attached to Hashem.  As we reflect on the two different he-goat offerings, we should realize that although it might be tempting to act like the Sa’ir LaAzazeil, we all have the strength and fortitude to consistently lead a life committed to Hashem.

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