THIS SITE IS NO LONGER SUPPORTED            בית מדרש הוירטואלי עבר דירה
PLEASE FIND US AT OUR NEW TORAT HAR ETZION WEBSITE                                  
     English shiurim @          לשיעורים בעברית @

The Secret of the Scapegoat

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein
Translated by David Strauss
In tribute to Matityahu Moshe Ben Shlomo Mermelstein z"l
Dedicated by Steven Weiner & Lisa Wise in tribute to
Mr. Yechiel Saiman of blessed memory. 
His presence in our community was such a privilege and treat for us, 
and he is very deeply missed.  
We send our warmest wishes of comfort to his wife Chana 
and to all of their children and grandchildren.  
Purity and Holiness
            There are two fundamental concepts in the world of Judaism: "holiness" and "purity." We are used to the verbal combination of these two concepts in our prayers, in phrases such as "in holiness and in purity." In fact, however, there is a fundamental difference between holiness, which stands in contrast to the profane, and purity, which stands in contrast to impurity.
            The concepts of purity and impurity relate to the natural world. Purity refers to nature in its primal state, as it came into being at the time of Creation, whereas impurity expresses the corruption of that original nature by way of death and annihilation. The natural world in it basic state is pure, in that it reflects the world that God created. Impurity is the corruption of that world, whether in the literal sense, by way of death and annihilation, or in the metaphorical sense, through sin and iniquity. Purification, which comes to remove the impurity and restore nature to its pure state, involves removing the defiling agent. It does not create a new state, but merely eliminates the defect that had come into being, restoring nature to its pure primal state.
            In contrast to purity, holiness is not found in the natural world, but rather in the world of man. An object becomes holy after a person removes it from its initial natural state and bestows holiness upon it. God is the source of holiness, and sanctification is achieved by standing before God, increasing the presence of the Divine in the world and locating oneself in His presence. Holiness, therefore, is unique to the world of man. Mute nature, inanimate matter, and animals do not turn to God and do not have a conscious relationship with Him. Only man, by virtue of the Divine image within him, merits standing before God, and therefore he is exalted above natural existence and capable of sanctifying himself and his surroundings.[1]
            Being a creature composed of matter and spirit, the existence of man is a dual existence. In the physical-physiological sense, man is similar to other created beings and included in the class of mammals. Man is not even the strongest creature, and sometimes he finds himself in his natural existence helpless against the forces of nature and other animals. Man's advantage and the essential difference between him and the other creatures stem from his personality and understanding. With this power, man creates for himself tools and artificial frameworks that provide him with shelter and refuge from the elements of nature. In this way, he creates for himself a technological iron curtain that distinguishes him from the rest of creation. Man dwells in the house that he built, wears the clothing that he sewed, and warms himself up with the heat of the oven that he fashioned, and in this he stands apart from the world of nature outside his house. So too, in the social and artistic realms, man creates artificial frameworks – sociological, political and legal – that separate him from primal nature. The social community, from family to the state; human language, from the single word to poetry; sport and science – all of these things transform man into a creature that is not part of nature, but rather lives outside of nature and controls it.
            The distinct human world is the world in which holiness is revealed. Nature is mute – matter without spirit – and therefore it is not commanded, nor does it stand before God. Only man, who is endowed with mind and spirit, with understanding and personality, can stand before God. Thus, we cite in the Ne'ila prayer the verse from the book of Kohelet (3:19): "Man has no preeminence over a beast; for all is vanity," implying that the biological existence of the two is the same. But we immediately add: "You set man apart from the beginning, and recognized him to stand before You." God chose man, set him apart from the animal world, and recognized him as a creature who is capable of standing before Him. Thus, holiness can reveal itself only in the human world, in which the uniqueness and greatness of man find expression. A person can only consecrate objects that belong to him and are found in his world, such as a house or a garment. Unlike purity, which is based on the world of nature, holiness expresses itself in the human world that is beyond nature.
            This, then, is the difference between purity and holiness. The world in its primordial state, before the creation of man, was absolutely pure, but it was also void of holiness. The world was correct and worthy, as its Creator testified about it: "And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good" (Bereishit 1:31), but it was missing the exaltedness of holiness. After man was created, there also came into being the ability to bestow holiness upon the world, to move from the natural and ordinary world of mundane purity to a world into which is cast the positive value of holiness.
The Atonement of the Goat that is sent to Azazel
            Since holiness, and not purity, is the way that leads to man's encounter with God, atonement and the pardon of one's sins are based on withdrawing from them and drawing near to God through holiness. How does a person atone for his sins? By way of sacrifices offered in the Temple. And what is a sacrifice if not the taking of an animal, removing it from its natural reality, and transforming it into an object that serves man as a present to God? The animal leaves the world of nature and enters the world of man; it is consecrated and raised up on the altar in the Temple. From now on, it belongs to the world of the Temple.
            It is not by chance that Yom Kippur, the day on which God atones for the sins of Israel, is called  "the holy day." There is no day more holy than Yom Kippur, on which the High Priest enters the innermost chamber of the Temple, the site of the ark and the tablets. On this day, many sacrifices are offered in the Temple courtyard, and there are also special sacrifices – the bull of the High Priest and the goat of Yom Kippur – offered by the High Priest, the blood of which is sprinkled in the Holy of Holies. As the Torah formulates it, the service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur is "to make atonement in the holy place" (Vayikra 16:17). His entering the Holy of Holies and standing there before God are what achieve the atonement of the day.
            However, in contrast to the rest of the days of the year, when atonement is achieved exclusively through holiness, Yom Kippur is distinguished by a fusion of holiness and purity. The Torah proclaims (Vayikra 16:30): "For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; for all your sins shall you be clean before the Lord," and the principle of purity passes like a scarlet thread through Yom Kippur and constitutes a central component in the atonement of the day. From a halakhic perspective, the special purity finds expression, among other ways, in the many immersions of the High Priest over the course of his service.[2]
            Just as Yom Kippur combines holiness with purity, the special atonement achieved on Yom Kippur combines holiness with purity. Two goats are brought on Yom Kippur: One of them is bought inside the Temple and atones for the Holy, while the second one is sent off to Azazel. The atonement of the goat that is sent off is achieved by way of the High Priest confessing over it and sending it off to a land “which is cut off”:
But the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be set alive before the Lord, to make atonement over him, to send it away for Azazel into the wilderness… And Aharon 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 to a land which is cut off; and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness. (Vayikra 16:10-22)
            The atonement achieved by the goat sent to Azazel (also known as the scapegoat) is a unique atonement. First of all, it is achieved not inside the Temple, but outside of it. Moreover, as opposed to all other means of atonement, whose foundations lie in the world of man, the atonement of the goat sent to Azazel is achieved precisely by sending it back to nature. The goat is taken to the wilderness, cast back into nature, and returned to the primordial world of the raw wilderness. As opposed to the rest of the sacrifices, it is not slaughtered with the help of the Temple vessels, but pushed off a cliff; "hurling it down from the cliff, that is its slaughter" (Yoma 64a). Returning the animal to nature and smashing its organs as a natural process, rather than ordinary slaughter, are what create the purification of the goat.
            The halakhot that deal with the place to which the goat is sent emphasize the primordial and natural state of the place, as the absolute contrast to a civilized area:
Our Rabbis taught: "Azazel" — it should be hard [az] and rough. One might have assumed that it is to be in inhabited land; therefore, the text reads: "the wilderness." But from where do we know that it is to be in a cliff? Therefore the text reads: "Cut off." Another [baraita] taught: "Azazel," i.e., the hardest of mountains. (Yoma 67b)
            The return of the goat to the wilderness and to the primordial world of nature is a process of purification, and through it the people achieve atonement. Not the world of partitions and holiness, but rather the world of the wilderness and nature, is what underlies the atonement of the goat that is sent to Azazel.
            Crossing the boundaries between purity and holiness, between the natural world and the world of man, was so strange in the eyes of Chazal that they counted the goat that is sent to Azazel among the four things that are referred to as a "statute" (chukka) and challenged by the evil inclination, like the red heifer (Bemidbar Rabba 19:5). Like the red heifer, which purifies the impure and defiles anyone who involves himself with it, the goat that is sent to Azazel atones for the sins of Israel, but the one who sends him off becomes defiled and must purify his garments (Vayikra 16:26).[3]
The Incident of Uza and Aza’el
            In its discussion of the atonement achieved by the goat that is sent to Azazel, the gemara adds a sentence, the meaning of which is unclear:
The school of R. Yishmael taught: "Azazel" — [it was so called] because it achieves atonement for the incident involving Uza and Aza'el. (Yoma 67b)
            The gemara itself does not explain what was this "incident involving Uza and Aza'el," but Rashi explains what happened:
Uza and Aza'el – Destructive angels who descended to earth in the days of Na'ama, the sister of Tuval-Kayin, about whom it was stated: "And the sons of God saw the daughters of man" (Bereishit 6:2). That is to say, it atones for sexual offenses.[4]
            In order to fully understand the words of the gemara, we must consider the course of Parashat Bereishit and the ramifications of Adam's s sin on human existence.
            If we briefly summarize what happened to the human race after it was first created, as it is described in Parashat Bereishit, we can point to a process of transitioning from life in nature and in harmony between man and nature to a position of conquering nature and abandoning natural life. Had we merited, and had we not sinned, man's uniqueness and his standing before God could have found expression in the manner of purification and in existence in the world of nature. Before the sin, man lived in the midst of nature as one of the living creatures, and engaged in dialogue with the animals (Bereishit 2:19-5):
And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and He brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man would call every living creature, that was to be the name thereof. And the man gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field… And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.
            After Adam's sin and his expulsion from the Garden of Eden, man forsook nature. The sin attested to man's failure to fulfill his destiny within the world of nature, and it was not by chance that man sinned by way of an animal. In the wake of the sin, disharmony between man and nature entered the world. Man was expelled from the Garden of Eden, it was decreed that he must toil for his bread, and he began a process of withdrawing from nature. The primary stations in this process are described in the book of Bereishit – the sewing of garments, the beginning of cattle raising and working the land, the beginning of the building of cities and areas of settlement as a substitute for living in the bosom of nature, and the development of musical instruments, weapons, and other artisanal tools. This process reaches a climax in Parashat Noach, when we hear how the world was saved through the building of an artificial ark, while all of nature was destroyed.
            Alongside the ongoing process of the change in the pattern of human life, from living within nature to a unique culture elevated high above it, there continued an attempt to live human life within the framework of nature. The highpoint of this attempt is described at the end of Parashat Bereishit, in the story of the sons of God and the daughters of man (Bereishit 6:1-5):
And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives, whomever they chose… The Nefilim were in the earth in those days, and also after that, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them; the same were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown.
And the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 
            It may be suggested that the phrase "sons of God" refers to heroic natural figures, of enormous strength, who sought release and expression in the framework of nature. As opposed to Noach, who would eventually save humanity and the world through total withdrawal from nature into an artificial ark that he built, the sons of God propose the possibility of human life within the framework of nature.
            However, instead of living a harmonious life with themselves, with nature, and with the Creator, the sons of God revealed themselves to be impulsive creatures with no restraints, whose natural lives turned into providing an outlet for their sexual desires. The pursuit of the daughters of men attests to a nature that does not express the human spirit, but rather his aggression. The natural world of the sons of God is a world of the laws of the jungle, of survival of the strongest and the rule of the most powerful over the others. While they are living in nature, the world of the sons of God does not become elevated or refined, but rather resembles the world of animals. The conclusion that emerges from this story is the failure of human life within nature and the need to navigate man from natural existence to an existence of "withdrawal."
            God chose Noach and his approach, and abandoned the possibility of human life in nature. The floodwaters arrived, and the people who remained in nature were decimated, while the people who secluded themselves in the ark – in the artificial world of man – were saved.[5]
            The destruction of nature and the detachment of man from nature constitute "the incident involving Uza and Aza'el," for which the goat that is sent to Azazel achieves atonement. Rashi mentions sexual transgressions, which are the most practical and explicit of the sins of the sons of God, but the significance of these sins is far broader, and it lies in man's ability to maintain meaningful life in nature.
            From the time of the failure to maintain human life in nature, a barrier was created between the world of holiness and the world of purity. From that time on, the atonement for sins was achieved by way of service belonging to the world of holiness and detached from nature. By asserting that the goat that is sent to Azazel atones for the incident involving Uza and Aza'el, R. Yishmael alludes that the service involving the goat sent to Azazel is unique in that it atones for the corruption of nature not by abandoning it, but by repairing it.  The goat that is sent off is returned to nature, and the message arising from it is that nature can be purified and that even from it man can draw close to God. Once a year, the Halakha proclaims by way of the goat sent to Azazel that the return to nature is possible and desirable. It is true that from the time of the sin, "the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth" (Bereishit 8:21), but in man and in creation there is basic goodness, and returning to it purifies and atones. Just as one who is defiled with physical impurity returns to nature and turns the clock back to the original point of departure, one who is defiled with the filth of sin returns on Yom Kippur to his natural and purifying origins.[6]  This is what the verse states (Vayikra 16:30): "For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins shall you be clean before the Lord."

[1]  Man becomes sanctified when he withdraws from the natural world into the separate world of holiness, as Chazal explained the command, "You shall be holy" – "You shall separate yourselves" (Sifra, Kedoshim 1). 
[2] The purification of Yom Kippur is also reflected in the white garments in which the special service of the day is performed, for the white garments are made of linen, a simple and unadorned material, as opposed to the gold garments, which are made "for splendor and for beauty" (Shemot 28:2), as an elaborate product of human craftsmanship.
[3] In fact, the exceptionality of the red heifer is similar to that of the goat that is sent to Azazel, but in the opposite direction. The red heifer belongs to the world of purity, as its ashes purify corpse impurity. But the purity is not achieved by way of a return to nature, but by way of slaughtering and burning the animal – acts belonging to the world of consecrations and offerings. On the one hand, it is similar to an offering, but on the other hand, it comes to purify and its rite is performed outside the Temple. See R. Moshe Lichtenstein, "Be-Kedusha U-Be-Tahara," Daf Kesher 432,; abridged translation:  
[4] See also Midrash Yalkut Shimoni, Parashat Vayelekh 940: "From alongside Your presence in heaven two angels descended, Uza and Aza'el, and they lusted after the daughters of the earth and corrupted their way upon the earth, until you hung them between the earth and the firmament."
[5] Perhaps this is the secret of the greatness and strength of Og king of the Bashan, to the point that the midrash testifies that he survived the flood outside the ark and that hundreds of years later Moshe was concerned about his merits (Nidda 61a). This attests not only to his physical might, but to his harmonious existence in nature, so that he succeeded in remaining faithful to the spirit of man and not corrupting his way. 
[6] This point may explain the mysterious similarity between Yom Kippur and Tu Be-Av, concerning which Chazal said that there were never any greater days of joy than them (Ta'anit 26b). The gemara (ibid. 30b) records various events that occurred on Tu Be-Av, all of which involved the repair of some historic sin of Israel. Tu Be-Av may be a day of purification – of repairing sin, of removing its influence, and of opening a new and clean page between man and God. Indeed, Tu Be-Av was celebrated with dances in the vineyard in the midst of the natural world, with the dancers dressed in white, a clear symbol of purity and naturalness. This is the foundation of the connection between Tu Be-Av and Yom Kippur, which is also a day of purification. On Yom Kippur, however, there is also the dimension of holiness, and therefore the Halakha poured into it content that does not exist on Tu Be-Av.