And the goat upon which the lot ‘For Azazel’ came up, shall be placed while still alive, before the Lord, to provide atonement through it and to send it away to Azazel, into the desert. Leviticus 16:10
The Seir L’Azazel or scapegoat is one of the most perplexing rituals in the Torah. Two identical looking goats are brought to the Temple on Yom Kippur. The High Priest conducts a lottery by putting his hands into an urn which contained two lots. One read l’Hashem – for God, the other l’Azazel – for Azazel. The goat which received the lot l’Hashem was immediately taken and slaughtered as a sin offering while the remaining goat was subsequently led into the desert and thrown from a high rocky place to its death.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (d. 1888) explains that the two goats represent the choices each person has every day of their lives to do either good or bad. When a person chooses the moral path, they may lose out in some physical way. For example, charity means I give some of my money for someone else’s needs. Choosing to eat only kosher food restricts my choice restaurant or caterer.
Somebody who refrains from giving charity or eats wherever they like, may initially feel like they have succeeded in retaining their money or afforded themselves greater freedom. Yet this is like the second goat, designated for Azazel but as yet unaware of its fate. While it may still be alive and relieved that it was not offered to God, its gain is short lived and ultimately for nothing.
Rabbi Hirsch explains the word Azazel to be a contraction of az azel – strength departs. To avoid it we must try to direct our energies and resources to holier quests which are a guaranteed investment for the future.
A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle.