August 15, 2013
The Lesson on Yom Kippur
This month of Elul leads up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is a time of reflection and tishuvah, return, but with what should we emerge from this process?
Elul, Rosh Hashanah, the 10 Days of Tishuvah and Yom Kippur culminates in a service performed once a year on Yom Kippur itself, on the holiest day, in the holiest place, by the holiest person. But it was also, perhaps the strangest service in Judaism. As the Torah states in Vayikra/Leviticus 16:
This Yom Kippur service is the only ongoing mitzvah which specifically required a randomizer. In addition, these two goats from which one is chosen to be a sacrifice and the other, which in a truly strange seemingly un-Jewish act of wanton destruction is thrown off a cliff, had to be identical, in a way -twins. One no different that the other, no more deserving, no more holy, no more attractive; exactly the same but with diametrically opposite ends. As the Mishna in Yoma 62a states:
Not only the two goats but the lots used to choose them had to be exactly the same, save the consequences engraved upon them. As the Talmud, Yoma 37a says:
The central service of the holiest day, the day of judgment and atonement, of G-d being most present, revolved around two completely identical goats, costing the same, looking the same, chosen by identical lots, yet with opposite, truly random destinies. One for G-d the other for Azazel, for wanton, seemingly purposeless destruction.
This service almost seems as if, G-d forbid, it were engineered by a cynic, a tongue in cheek Dadaist, mocking G-d and us and the world G-d created, by attempting to highlight, though an eccentric act of performance art, the seemingly banal randomness of good and evil, the arbitrary meaninglessness of life, human will, choice, destiny and purpose. Though exactly the same, one is randomly chosen for G-d, for holiness, for a sacrifice in the holiest place, and one to be thrown off a cliff in a barren place, alone, witnessed by no one, not even its executioner who had to turn his back to push it off the cliff to its death, torn limb from limb.
Why is such a thing performed? How in the world does such a ceremony so seemingly cruel in its randomness bring total atonement for the Jewish people? Indeed it seems to fly in the face of everything we believe in and hold sacred.
Often we wish to escape from responsibility into an imagined freedom. But in this world in which we have no control, our freedom from life, from death, is an illusion. What we can do is aim, within all this randomness of our universe, to live a life of holiness and meaning. A life La’Hashem-for G-d, and not La’azazel-for naught. Yom Kippur and the process of tishuvah can not help us to control the coming year, but it can help our life and our inevitable death, be on the Jewish alter, in the temple, not in some forsaken spiritual desert.