The climax of the Yom Kippur Avodah in the Beit HaMikdash was the Azazel ceremony. Rashi (VaYikra 16:8) describes this strange ceremony. “He [Aaron] placed one goat to his right and one goat to his left. He then put both his hands into an urn and chose one lot in his right hand and the other in his left. These he placed on each goat. The goat upon which fell the lot bearing the inscription “LaShem” was sacrificed to Hashem and the goat upon which fell the lot “Azazel” was sent to Azazel.” The Mishnah in Yoma (6:1) describes the goats used in the ceremony, “The two male goats for Yom Kippur are required to be alike in appearance, in size, and in value, and were to have been bought at the same time.” There seems to be a random picking as to which goat would be sanctified for good and which would be cast away. One would certainly hope that this ceremony is not analogous to how Hashem judges us! We hope that Hashem looks more carefully into each person before deciding whether they should live or die, so how did this strange ceremony resonate with so many spectators on Yom Kippur that it inspired them to turn towards God and away from sin?
In all of creation, man is the only being to have free will. He alone has the ability to choose between right and wrong, good and evil. However, much of what he does is influenced by events outside of his control. He cannot choose the society in which is raised or the family to whom he is born. The decisions he makes are those that are presented by the environment. Furthermore, many events occur in his life that are entirely out of his grasp: natural calamities, illness, economic collapse, political turmoil, etc. Man, thus, is constantly in a vulnerable state, subject to the vicissitudes of life. But it is precisely the argument that man is a victim of forces not under his control that is the basis for his prayers on Yom Kippur. For, had man been entirely responsible for his actions, why should Hakadosh Baruch Hu give him a second chance?
The Baalei HaKabbalah found connections between Yom HaKipurim and Purim. The very name itself seems to imply a connection: Yom KiPurim - “a day like Purim.” It’s an odd connection, comparing the merry, festive holiday of Purim to the somber, introspective day of Yom Kippur. Yet, many of the underlying themes of the days are very similar. One parallel between the two days is the appeal for divine compassion and intercession. This is at the essence of Yom Kippur. We call out to God, asking Him for salvation and redemption from sin. Purim too, has this theme. The Megillah relates two aspects: thanksgiving and divine petition; the tale of a people terrified at facing imminent destruction and the exhilaration of receiving salvation. The dual nature of Purim cannot be fused into one day. Consequently, the holiday was split in two; Taanit Esther, the Fast of Esther as a remembrance to the terror, and Purim as a remembrance to the salvation. Clearly, both Purim and Yom Kippur parallel each other in that they both combine aspects of solemnity.
There is a second shared aspect of the two days, that of the Goral, lottery. The Goral on Purim was used by Haman to choose the date on which the Jews would be killed. It is not only this event, however, that gave the day its name (Goral is a synonym of Pur). Rather, there is a randomness that permeates the Megillah. The Jews went from living comfortably in Persia to being persecuted. Mordechai went from being condemned to being Prime Minister. Irrational events and moods define this story. This is what Purim is all about, informing Am Yisrael that everything they have might change instantaneously.
The only plea that can be made to Hashem on Yom Kippur is based on all of these ideas: the circumstances of life are out of man’s control and he cannot be entirely responsible for his actions over the course of the year. Two men may be born with identical dispositions, but if one is brought up in a household with little moral instruction and the other raised in a house of strong morality, they will act differently through no fault of their own. The Azazel ceremony represents this very same idea. Two goats, as similar as possible, are given polar fates on the luck of the draw. One is sent to Azazel and one is sacrificed to Hashem without either of the goats having any say in the matter. Our prayers on Yom Kippur keep this very idea in mind; we ask Hashem not only to judge us based on our deeds, but also to take into consideration the situations in which we find ourselves and the life into which we have been born. Thus, the Azazel ceremony reflects the emotions of Am Yisrael as they stand before Hashem on Yom Kippur. It is only with these thoughts in mind that we can hope to receive God’s compassion on Yom Kippur.
-Adapted from Reflections of the Rav by Rabbi Abraham Besdin