It is amongst the most difficult laws in the Torah to understand. The Se’ir HaMishtalei’ach ceremony that is performed as part of the Yom Kippur Beit HaMikdash ritual appears primitive and brutal and even seems to run counter to basic Torah values. The notion of taking a goat and hurling it down a cliff, thereby achieving forgiveness for our sins, is difficult for us to accept. Indeed, Meforashim throughout the generations have struggled to understand the meaning behind what appears to be a peculiar ritual. However, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik offers an eye opening explanation that reveals the profound message of this mysterious Mitzvah. Moreover, the eye opening book The Other Wes Moore brings Rav Soloveitchik’s interpretation to life and helps us grasp the elusive meaning of the Se’ir HaMishtalei’ach.
The Se’ir HaMishtalei’ach Ritual
The Torah (VaYikra 16:5-10) describes the Se’ir HaMishtalei’ach ritual as follows (translation from Mechon Mamre):
And he shall take of the congregation of the children of Israel two he-goats for a sin-offering, and one ram for a burnt-offering. And Aaron shall present the bullock of the sin-offering, which is for himself, and make atonement for himself, and for his house. And he shall take the two goats, and set them before the Lord at the door of the tent of meeting. And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats: one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for Azazel. And Aaron shall present the goat upon which the lot fell for the Lord, and offer him for a sin-offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell for Azazel, shall be set alive before the Lord, to make atonement over him, to send him away for Azazel into the wilderness.
The Torah (ad loc. 21-22) continues:
And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, even all their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of an appointed man into the wilderness. And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land which is cut off; and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.
The Mishnah (Yoma 6:6) describes the scene at the mountain:
“The Kohein who brought the goat to the desert tied a strip of crimson between the horns of the goat and then pushed the goat backwards down the cliff. The goat would roll down the mountain and be dismembered by the time it reached halfway down the mountain”.
Rav Shmuel Goldin, in his Unlocking the Torah Text: Vayikra (page 114), eloquently articulates three questions that will help us unlock the meaning of this mysterious ritual:
What is the significance of the simultaneous selection of two goats? This question becomes even more intriguing in light of the Mishnaic dictate (Yoma 6:1) that the goats chosen should be as similar as possible in stature, appearance and in cost.
Why are lots drawn to determine the fate of each goat? Why not simply designate without resorting to a ceremony of chance?
Are the sins of the people truly transferred to the “head of the goat,” as the text seems to indicate? Does the animal really become a scapegoat for our sins? Such an idea seems completely antithetical to Jewish Law and its prohibition of superstitious practice… To suggest that the Teshuva process can somehow be short-circuited through a magical act of transference of sins seems to fly in the face of all we believe.
Four Classic Approaches to the Se’ir HaMishtalei’ach – Chazal, Abarbanel, Rav Hirsch and Ramban
The Gemara (Yoma 67b) lists the Se’ir HaMishtalei’ach among five other examples of a Chok, a Mitzvah for which we do not have a rational explanation. Included in this list are other puzzling rituals such as Chalitzah and the Sha’atneiz prohibition. This passage in the Gemara concludes that one should not regard these Mitzvot as an exercise in nonsense, since they were commanded by Hashem in His infinite wisdom. Thus, one can simply opt out of trying to discover meaning to the Se’ir HaMishtalei’ach since it is a Chok.
Nonetheless, Meforashim endeavor to discover a reason for this Mitzvah. Abarbanel (VaYikra 16:1-22) argues that the two goats whose appearance is very similar represent the twin brothers Ya’akov and Eisav, one of whom is chosen to serve as the ancestor of God’s nation and the other destined to live a turbulent and violent existence. This ritual is conducted on Yom Kippur to remind us of our special role as descendants of Ya’akov Avinu.
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (VaYikra 16:10) notes that on the one hand, one goat’s blood reaches a more holy spot than the blood of any other Korban. On the other hand, the Se’ir HaMishtalei’ach is sent much further outside the Beit HaMikdash than any other rejected Korban. The Torah is teaching that Hashem creates a level spiritual field in which we function. Whenever there is greater spiritual opportunity there is also a parallel greater potential for falling into a spiritual abyss. The opposite destinations of the two goats express the choice and free will that Hashem has bestowed upon us – a core lesson of spiritual improvement central to Yom Kippur.
Ramban (VaYikra 16:8) offers an incredibly bold suggestion to explain the Se’ir HaMishtalei’ach:
On Yom Kippur, however, Hashem commanded us that we send a goat to the wilderness, to the “force” that rules in desolate places…and under whose authority are the demons referred to by Chazal as “Mazikim” (destroyers) and in the Chumash as “Se’irim,” male goats.
Ramban clarifies that the Se’ir HaMishtalei’ach is not an independent offering to the “force” of the wilderness. The gift to the wilderness, rather, is a fulfillment of God’s will, comparable to a food provided by the caterer of a banquet to a servant at the host’s request.
Rav Goldin (op. cit. p. 122) offers a compelling explanation of Ramban. He writes the following:
“[The gift constitutes] A healthy respect for the potentially destructive forces that inhabit our inner world. We must recognize the strength of our Yeitzer Hara (base instincts) and its unerring ability to undermine all valiant attempts at self-betterment. Attempted sublimation of the Yeitzer Hara is the surest way to grant it power over our actions. Instead we must acknowledge our “adversary”; respect its strength; and then turn that strength to our benefit.
Rav Soloveitchik’s Approach to the Se’ir HaMishtalei’ach
While these and other classic explanations of the Se’ir HaMishtalei’ach shed significant light and represent significant contributions to the age-old endeavor to explain this mysterious ritual, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s approach (presented in Reflections of the Rav, volume 1 chapter 4, especially page 46) appears the most satisfying and compelling.
Rav Soloveitchik explains that the two male goats were identical but their fates lead them in opposite directions, as determined by chance (“Goral,” the lottery) decisions entirely beyond their control. The casting of lots decreed which was to go “LaShem,” to be sacrificed within the Temple, and which to “Azazeil,” to be cast out of the camp of Israel, ignominiously to be destroyed. The secret of atonement is thus indicated in the ceremonious casting of the lots. It reflects the basis for the penitent’s claim to forgiveness, that his moral directions were similarly influenced by forces beyond his control, that his sinning was not entirely a free and voluntary choice. Only the Almighty can evaluate the extent of human culpability in situations which are not entirely of man’s making. Only God knows to what extent a man was a free agent in making his decisions. The Se’ir HaMishtalei’ach is thus a psychodramatic representation of the penitent’s state of mind and his emotional need. Only by entering such a plea can man be declared “not guilty.”
Rav Soloveitchik builds on Abarbanel’s and Rav Hirsch’s approaches of the Se’ir HaMishtalei’ach representing the two paths from which we choose in life, taking it to the next level by showing how the Se’ir HaMishtalei’ach expresses our plea for forgiveness to Hashem on Yom Kippur. While the Rav’s approach does not excuse a sinner from his actions, it does offer hope and opportunity for understanding and forgiveness on the one hand, and the opportunity to improve on the other. Rav Soloveitchik’s approach also fits with Ramban’s idea of respecting the power of the Yeitzer HaRa, which also constitutes a basis for forgiveness on the one hand, and a basis for opportunities to improve on the other.
The Other Wes Moore
Rav Soloveitchik’s approach to the Se’ir HaMishtalei’ach is brought to life by the highly regarded work published (by Random House) in 2010, The Other Wes Moore – One Name, Two Fates. The author summarizes the message of his book as follows:
Two kids with the same name, living in the same city. One grew up to be a Rhodes Scholar, decorated combat veteran, White House Fellow, and business leader. The other is serving a life sentence in prison for felony murder. Here is the story of two boys and the journey of a generation.
In December 2000, the Baltimore Sun ran a small piece about Wes Moore, a local student who had just received a Rhodes Scholarship. The same paper also ran a series of articles about four young men who had allegedly killed a police officer in a spectacularly botched armed robbery. The police were still hunting for two of the suspects who had gone on the lam, a pair of brothers. One was named Wes Moore.
Wes just couldn’t shake off the unsettling coincidence, or the inkling that the two shared much more than space in the same newspaper. After following the story of the robbery, the manhunt, and the trial to its conclusion, he wrote a letter to the other Wes, now a convicted murderer serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. His letter tentatively asked the questions that had been haunting him: Who are you? How did this happen?
That letter led to a correspondence and relationship that has lasted for several years. Over dozens of letters and prison visits, Wes discovered that the other Wes had a life not unlike his own: Both had grown up in similar neighborhoods and had difficult childhoods, both were fatherless; they’d hung out on similar corners with similar crews, and both had run into trouble with the police. At each stage of their young lives they had come across similar moments of decision, yet their choices and the people in their lives would lead them to astonishingly different destinies.
Told in alternating dramatic narratives that take readers from heart-wrenching losses to moments of surprising redemption, The Other Wes Moore tells the story of a generation of boys trying to find their way in a challenging and at times, hostile world.
Quality books allow one to vicariously enter and experience environments in which one would otherwise not have the opportunity to access. The intended power of The Other Wes Moore is to allow us to vicariously experience the challenges faced by those who struggle with being raised in inner city environments. From a Torah perspective, The Other Wes Moore provides a rare window of opportunity to vicariously experience the central theme and profoundly poignant power of message communicated by the Se’ir HaMishtalei’ach – two people come from nearly the same background and environment, yet one merges as a spectacular success and one as a resounding failure. While one can never excuse The Other Wes Moore for the choices he made, experiencing and understanding his background helps us at least have some compassion for his predicament. It also helps us grasp the essence of our plea on Yom Kippur for forgiveness and the opportunity for improvement and redemption.
Far from being primitive and brutal, the Se’ir HaMishtalei’ach expresses a highly sophisticated and poignant message, which touches the heart of the human condition and the fundamental moral-spiritual tension between justice and mercy. Our careful search for meaning in what at a superficial glance appears to be foolish has yielded rich and abundant fruit. The same applies for every Mitzvah. Any and every aspect of Torah and Chazal is rich with meaning and significance. Never dismiss any part of our holy Torah. If we do not grasp the full meaning of part of the Torah, we are confident that others in either the current or future generations will unravel the mystery. Our successful search to discover the meaning of the Se’ir HaMishtalei’ach helps us accept Chazal’s teaching (Yoma 67b) regarding such Chukim, “Lest one argue that these Chukim are a foolish waste, therefore the Torah states [in regard to Chukim] ‘Ani Hashem’ (I am God); you enjoy no right to dismiss His commands.”