“The Poetry of Yom Kippur”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In the year 1916, the great American poet, Robert Frost, penned a poem he entitled, The Road Not Taken. In this poem Frost talks of two roads that he came upon as he walked through the woods. Assessing the first road and then the second, he decided to take the one that was less traveled, that “was still grassy and wanted wear.” He thought he’d keep the other road for another occasion, even though he knew deep down that it was unlikely that he would ever return to that second road.

It is almost impossible not to sense a very similar theme when examining the Yom Kippur Temple service of ancient Israel.

As described in parashat Acharei Mot (Leviticus 16:1-34), the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest, conducts a highly complex and ornate Temple service on Yom Kippur known in Hebrew as the Avodah–“The Service.” As the High Priest commences and concludes each section of the Avodah, he washes his hands and feet, he immerses in a mikvah, changes his clothes and washes his hands and feet again. Five times the priest immerses and changes his garments, alternating between the golden vestments and the white linen vestments, and washes his hands and feet ten times.

Among the various offerings that are brought on Yom Kippur is the offering of the scapegoat. Two identical he-goats are chosen, lots are cast, one is designated “laHashem,” to G-d, the other is designated “la’Azazayl,” to the wilderness. The goat that is designated to G-d is eventually offered on the altar as a sacrifice. The High Priest then confesses the sins of Israel upon the head of the goat that is to go to Azazayl, and the scapegoat is led away to the wilderness.

In ancient times, when the land of Israel was not densely populated, the goat would be released in the wilderness, exposed to the predators of nature. It is likely that the goat did not survive very long in this hostile environment, and met a rather untimely and brutal death. As the land became more populated, the goat was taken to a cliff where it was cast to its death.

Although there are many explanations offered concerning the ritual of the scapegoat, one of the most compelling is that of Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) that is recorded in his commentary on Leviticus 16:10. Rabbi Hirsch explains that the two identical he-goats represent two creatures that were originally completely identical. But when they approach the threshold of the sanctuary, their destinies part and they proceed on two entirely contrasting paths.

A he-goat, known in Hebrew as sa’ir, is known as an obstinate and resistant animal, one that has the ability to oppose with firmness demands made upon it. Rabbi Hirsch proceeds to explain the symbolism:

“We [humans] can use it [our own firmness and willpower] in attachment to G-d, in resisting all internal and external temptation and consideration which would lure us away from G-d and His Holy Will, in being a sa’ir laHashem. Or we can use it in obstinate refusal of all compliant obedience to G-d and to the demands of His holy laws of morality. [We] can turn the power of resistance which He has granted us against Him, and give ourselves up without a fight to the power of our senses and their allurements, to fight against [that] which was just the purpose for which G-d gave us that power of resistance. This sinking into the power of sensuality in contrast to the attachment to G-d, obeying His laws of morality, is here called la’Azazayl.

We humans, like the two identical goats, explains Rabbi Hirsch, have freedom of choice: to set ourselves against the Divine will or comply with His will. Each of us, says Rabbi Hirsch, “stands at the entry to G-d’s sanctuary to decide between G-d and Azazayl, between G-d and the power of our senses… Facing this, His Law, has the decision to be made…”

Several hundred years before Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Abarbanel (Spanish statesman, philosopher and commentator, 1437-1508) also explained that the identical goats were meant as a metaphor, suggesting that the identical he-goats represented the twin sons of Isaac, Jacob and Esau. The he-goat that was dedicated to G-d represents Jacob, who lived a life of G-dliness. The he-goat designated for Azazayl represents Esau, who chose to live a path different and apart from his ancestors. The Abarbanel suggests that the casting of the lots represents the decision that each human must make, whether to be offered to G-d, or to go off to the wilderness and walk away from G-d’s ways.

In the ritual of the scapegoat, the wilderness, which seemingly represents freedom, eventually comes to mean inevitable and painful death for the he-goat at the hands of the predators of the wild. The he-goat that is designated for G-d, even though it faces certain death, is elevated in the service of G-d.

Robert Frost concludes his powerful poem with the following verse:

I shall be telling this with a sigh,
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The ritual of the scapegoat on Yom Kippur has much to say to us concerning the decisions that we make in life. While we are strongly urged to choose G-d, the Al-mighty has given us the freedom to choose to embrace Him or reject Him. Let us use this great gift of freedom, and choose to embrace Him in joy, allowing ourselves to be drawn closer to the Al-mighty and to bask in His Divine presence.

May you be blessed.

Yom Kippur 5767 will be observed on Sunday night, October 1st and all day, Monday, October 2, 2006. Have a meaningful fast.