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Sa'ir La'Azazel: Chesed as an Antidote to Sinat Chinam

Parshat Acharei Mot discusses the Yom Kippur service performed by the Kohen Gadol.  One of the more enigmatic rituals was the “sa’ir la’Azazel” – the so-called “scapegoat” sent into the desert by the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur.

In fact, there were two male goats featured in the Yom Kippur service – ideally, they were similar in appearance, height and value, and purchased together in a single transaction (Mishnah Yoma 6:1). The first goat is sacrificed as a “chatas” – a national sin-offering. The Kohen Gadol then performs a “vidui” (confession) of all of the sins of the Jewish people on the second goat, which is then escorted out to the desert by a designated individual (the “ish iti”) who pushes it off a cliff to its death.

The entire ritual defies easy explanation, and many commentators explore its meaning and significance.

According to Kli Yakar, the male goats of the Yom Kippur service allude to the two young goats prepared by Rivka for Yaakov to bring as a meal to Yitzchak prior to requesting Yitzchak’s blessing (Bereshit 27:9).

In a similar vein, Abarbanel compares the two goats to Yaakov and Esav – signifying that two brothers raised in the same household may ultimately proceed on divergent paths in life depending on the choices they make. The ritual thus serves as a warning that choosing the right path in life is no easy task and requires vigilance (Rav Hirsch notes that the “goral” (lottery) by which each goat was selected for its chosen service alludes to the capacity of man to choose between good and evil).

Interestingly, while I have not done an exhaustive search, I have not yet found any commentaries drawing a connection between the two male goats of the Yom Kippur service and the “sa’ir” - male goat - that Yaakov’s sons slaughtered after selling Yosef in order to trick their father into believing that Yosef had been killed by a wild animal – “va’yikchu et ketonet Yosef v’yischatu sa’ir izim, va’yitbalu et ha’ketonet badam – [And the brothers] took Joseph’s tunic and slaughtered a goat, and dipped the tunic in the blood [of the slaughtered goat].” The brothers then show the bloody tunic to Yaakov, who concludes that Joseph has been devoured by a beast.

In my humble opinion, the parallels between the story of the sins perpetrated by Yosef’s brothers (first in selling Yosef, and then the ruse used to deceive their father), and the rituals of the two male goats on Yom Kippur are equally, if not more striking than the parallels between such rituals and the story of the struggle between Yaakov and Esav.

Beginning with the language, while the two young goats prepared by Rivka are referred to as “ge’diyei izim,” the goat slaughtered by Yaakov’s brothers is referred to as “sa’ir izim” – thus more closely matching the description of the goats for the Yom Kippur service as “se’irei izim.” Indeed, Rashi, in Parshat Naso, explains that the ne'si'im (princes) representing the 12 tribes, as part of the sacrifices offered in celebration of the sanctification of the Mishkan, each brought a "sa'ir izim" as a sin offering to atone for the brothers' sale of Yosef and their subsequent slaughtering of a "sa'ir" in order to trick Yaakov (Bamidbar 7:23). This Rashi serves as proof that perhaps other references in the Torah to sin offerings consisting of a "sa'ir izim" also represent atonement for the sale of Yosef.

But Yaakov's son only slaughtered one goat, while the Yom Kippur ritual involves two goats? To resolve this discrepancy, it should be noted that, according to Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, also known as the Lutzker Rav, in his sefer Oznaim La’Torah, the two goats of the Yom Kippur service are really meant to be a single goat. Rav Sorotzkin points out that every chatas service requires semicha (laying of the hands), vidui (confession), the sprinkling of blood, and the burning of the eimurim (innards of the animal). On Yom Kippur, these rites are divided between the two goats. The blood of the goat for Hashem is sprinkled and its innards are burned while semicha and vidui is performed on the “scapegoat.” Thus, to some extent, while the story of Yosef and his brother only features a single slaughtered goat, in fact, the Yom Kippur service features the sacrificial tasks normally performed with a single goat, albeit undertaken with two separate goats. We’ll return to the significance of this insight further below.

We also find that the brothers dipped Yosef’s tunic  (“ketonet”) in blood. Paralleling this act, we have the Kohen Gadol donning a white tunic (“ketonet”) (along with three other white garments) prior to performing the Yom Kippur "avoda" service, which includes not only the designation of a "sa'ir" as the scapegoat, but also sprinkling the blood of the slaughtered “sa’ir” (as well as a slaughtered bull) in the kodesh ha'kadashim, the parochet, and the mizbeach ha'zahav. The gemara in Arachin (16a) states that the tunic worn by the kohahim procures atonment for bloodshed, and cites as proof the pasuk in Bereshit (37:31) describing how Yosef's brother's dipped Yosef's tunic into blood (as an aside, according to the Netziv (commenting on Vayikra 16:4), the ketonet is the only one of the four garments singled out by the Torah as "holy," because it was the holiest of all the garments worn by the kohen gadol. Interestingly, Yosef's ketonet was wool while the kohen gadol's ketonet was linen; this might partially explain the Torah's prohibition on mixing wool and linen in a single garment insofar as wool was an instrument of strife while linen was an instrument of atonement).

Then there is also the parallel of an unnamed “man.” In the story of Yosef and his brothers, a mysterious “ish” finds Yosef wandering in the fields, and directs him to his fateful encounter with this brothers. The Ramban says this was none other than the angel Gavriel sent to ensure that Yosef would meet his brothers, thus representing the fulfillment of the prophecy to Avraham that his descendants would eventually be enslaved in Egypt.

In the Yom Kippur service, we have the “ish itti” (designated man) charged with escorting the “scapegoat” to the desert. While numerous explanations of the term “iti” are given, in my humble opinion, there is some significance to the individual letters of the phrase “iti” – “ayin,” “taf” and “yud”. “Ayin” is seventy, which the Torah states is the number of Yaakov’s descendants who went down to Egypt (Bereshit 46:27) once Yosef disclosed his identity to his brothers (representing the first step in what ultimately became the Egyptian bondage). “Taf” is “400,” which the Torah identifies as the number of years that the descendants of Avraham were in exile (Bereshit 15: 13) (the process for which was started with the sale of Yosef who eventually ended up in Mitzrayim). And, of course, “yud” is 10, which is the number of Yaakov’s sons.

Finally, we might add that before selling Yosef, the brothers threw Yosef into an empty pit (according to Rashi, filled with snakes and scorpions); the scapegoat is pushed off a cliff to its death.

Given all these parallels and allusions between the Yom Kippur ritual involving the two goats and the story of Yosef and his brothers, what message might the Torah wish to convey?

The obvious message of the story of Yosef and his brothers is the destructive nature of “sinat chinam” – baseless hatred between Jews. The Torah and commentaries criticize both Yosef and his brothers for their hateful conduct towards each other - the Torah says that Yosef spoke "lashon harah" about his brothers to Yaakov (Rashi connects each of Yosef's slanderous reports to his later sufferings), while the brothers hated Yosef for speaking ill of them to their father, and also because of Yosef’s dreams and the favoritism shown to Yosef by Yaakov. The end result of this internal strife among Yaakov’s sons was the brothers' sale of Yosef - a sin to which the "eleh ezkarah" prayer (recited on Yom Kippur immediately after the "avoda" prayer, and in modified form as a kinah on Tisha B'Av) attributes the tragic execution of ten Talmudic sages (the "ten martyrs") by the Romans over a thousand years later (even though, ultimately, the sale of Yosef served as the instrument of Hashem's prophecy to Avraham) (as another interesting aside, according to the "eleh ezkarah" prayer, it is the same malach Gavriel that encountered Yosef who also advises the Talmudic sages, through the kohen gadol, that their execution is a divine decree; Gavriel is described as the angel "dressed in linen").

How might the ritual of the goats on Yom Kippur relate to the “sinat chinam” of Yosef and his brothers?

Rav Mordechai Yehudah Leib Sachs (a leading rabbinic figure in Jerusalem in the 20th century) observes that, according to the mishnah in Yoma (6:4), the most eminent members of Jerusalem would accompany the “ish iti” to the first of ten booths (each separated by 2,000 “amot”) at which the “ish iti” could rest, and obtain food and water, as necessary to complete his task (the trek from Jerusalem to the appointed cliff in the Judean desert was about 7-9 miles and often undertaken in hot weather).

Rav Sachs remarks that the fact that the initial escorts of the “ish iti” were the most eminent members of Jerusalem highlights the significance of performing a chesed on the day of Yom Kippur. Such men could have easily remained in Jerusalem awaiting word of the scapegoat’s arrival at the appointed cliff in the desert, and delegated the task of escorting the “ish iti” out of Jersualem to lesser individuals. Yet these eminent individuals personally assumed the role of escorting the ish iti.

To this we might add the “chesed” of all the individuals who manned the ten booths at which the “ish iti” stopped during his trek through the desert. As noted, these individuals offered food and drink to the “ish iti” in case he felt weak (since the commandment to bring the “scapegoat” to the desert superseded the “ish iti’s” obligation to fast; though the gemara states that it never happened that the “ish iti” needed to eat).

Another interesting detail – the Chizkuni cites a midrash that the individual escorting the scapegoat is called “iti” because he would not survive the year (“iti” referring to the fact that this individual’s “time” was up). Interestingly, Chizkuni states that this was not a punishment, since the great men of that period had the ability to foresee who would not survive the year, and thus chose someone who was going to die anyway within the year.

Be that as it may, upon an individual being selected to serve as “ish iti,” the realization that he would not survive the year must have been terribly distressing. Yet, individuals still undertook the task for the benefit of the atonement of the nation – indeed, the mishnah in Yoma states that (according to one opinion) the kohanim would not allow a non-kohen to serve – they wanted the job for themselves! This attitude of self-sacrifice for the good of the community reminds one of stories from the Holocaust of brave martyrs who willingly assumed blame for infractions they did not commit in order to save their brothers and sisters from collective punishment.

Thus, in sum, the entire ritual of the “scapegoat” was marked by acts of chesed. Given the parallels between the scapegoat ritual and the story of Yosef and his brothers, it may be that the scapegoat ritual served, at least to some extent, as rectification for the sin of “sinat chinam” that existed between Yosef and his brothers, and in that vein, perhaps also provides a model for rectifying sinat chinam that exists between any two individuals.

How is the case? Isn’t it well known that Yom Kippur does not provide atonement for sins “bein adam l’chavero” – sins between man and man? That is, to obtain atonement for such sins each individual must seek forgiveness from those whom he has wronged. How then can the scapegoat ritual provide such rectification?

The answer is that even more than simply asking forgiveness (which while required, may or may not be sincere), one must also strive to truly eradicate hatred for others from one’s heart. Forgiveness may be the first step, but it may not be sufficient if the individual asking forgiveness (or the individual being asked to grant it) still harbors hatred.

According to a commentary on Tefilat Zakah attributed to the teachings of Rav Joseph Soloveichik (the "Rav"), rectifying a sin "bein adam l'chavero" requires "doing what is necessary so that the previously strained relationship is completely restored." According to the Rav, "[s]eeking mere forgiveness is insufficient; the offending party must rather beg the aggrieved party to restore their old friendship. The parties must end up being as friendly as they were before the incident occurred."

Similarly, Abarbanel explain the "selach lanu, mechal lanu, kaper lanu" refrain in the Yom Kippur vidui prayer as a progression from a smaller to a great degree of forgiveness - "selach lanu" refers to giving up the right to punish us for our sins; "mechal lanu" refers to not even harboring any resentment or ill will against us because of our sins; and "kapel lanu" refers to removing any effects of our sins - as if they were never committed.

If forgiveness is insufficient, how does one reach the level of removing all resentment and restoring the relationship as if the strife never occurred? The “scapegoat” ritual provides a model for curing “sinat chinam” - acts of chesed. Specifically, all the chesed performed for the “ish iti” – and the self-sacrifice of the “ish iti” himself -- teach that it is the mundane day-to-day acts of chesed between individuals – e.g., sharing food, providing shelter, escorting in a time of need – that rectify the sin of “sinat chinam” and restore relationships.

The idea here is that “giving” creates love between the giver and the recipient, thus counteracting the animosity that may have previously existed between two individuals. Indeed, as Rav Dessler stresses in Michatav M'Eliyahu, the root of the word love – ahavah – is “hav” – to give.

Rav Dessler notes that we see this concept at play in an interesting halacha shared by Sefer Hachinuch in discussing Mitzvah 80 (“Peruk Masa” – The Obligation to Help Remove a Burden From a Faltering Animal). There, the  Sefer Hachinuch observes that if one encounters a friend and an “enemy” (i.e., a Jew against whom one has a personal grievance), and both require assistance with their animals at the same time, one is obligated to assist his “enemy” first. Why? The gemara (Baba Metzia 32b) explains, in order to “subdue one’s Evil Inclination.” As the Minchat Chinuch elaborates, character refinement is an important objective, and this includes purging oneself of feelings of hatred towards another Jew. By resisting the urge to ignore his enemy’s plight, an individual learns to foster love for all Jews, regardless of personal animosities. That is, by prioritizing the needs of an enemy, one can overcome feelings of ill will toward that person. (See Baba Metzia 32b, and Tosafot, s.v. la’chuf, for further discussion of this halacha).

With this thought in mind perhaps we can understand why, as Rav Sorotzkin observes in Oznaim La’Torah (cited above), the korban chatat of Yom Kippur is divided between two goats rather than having all the steps of the normal chatat service performed on a single goat. This is because atonement for sins bein adam l’chavero and bein adam l’Makom on Yom Kippur require different forms of rectification. While sins bein adam l’Makom can be rectified via korbanot, sins bein adam l’chveiro require more. Aside from asking forgiveness, if one truly wants to eliminate hatred for another from one’s heart, the solution is to perform acts of chesed for that person – the very sort of acts undertaken by all of the individuals involved in the “sa’ir la’azazel” ritual.

As we strike our chests during the "al chet" recitation - remembering all of the sins we have committed throughout the year - let us also make a mental list of the individuals towards whom we feel animosity due to personal grievances, and consider acts of chesed we can do for them to purge our feelings of ill will, and instead foster feelings of friendship (to be sure, undertaking such reconciliation is not always an easy task depending on the incident(s) that led to the animosity; sometimes the services of a mediator may be required; still, the first step is to commit to finding ways to build good will).


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