The Yom Kippur Service — One Goat to G-d, One Goat to Azazel
“Aharon shall bring near his own sin-offering bull, and provide atonement for himself and for his household. He shall take the two he-goats and stand them before G-d… Aharon shall place lots upon the two he-goats: one lot ‘for G-d’ and one lot ‘for Azazel’. Aharon shall bring near the he-goat designated by lot for G-d, and make it a sin-offering. And the he-goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be stood alive before G-d, to provide atonement through it, to send it to Azazel to the Wilderness.” (Leviticus 16:6-10)
“Aharon shall lean his two hands upon the head of the living he-goat and confess upon it all the iniquities of the Children of Israel, and all their rebellious sins among all their sins, and place them upon the head of the he-goat, and send it with a designated man to the desert. The he-goat will bear upon itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land, and he should send the he-goat to the desert.” (Leviticus 16:21-22)
This unusual procedure, performed only on Yom Kippur, is extremely difficult to understand. First of all, who, what or where is “Azazel”? Secondly, what was the purpose of the lots? Aaron could have just designated one for an offering and the other for Azazel without the lots. Thirdly, why is the confession of the sins of the people recited over the goat that is sent away? It makes more sense for the confession to be recited over the goat that is sacrificed as a sin-offering. Finally, transgressions are not simply burdens that can be taken off the back of one and placed on the back of another.
Abarbanel begins with a deeper level of understanding that is hinted at by these verses. The two goats, which look exactly alike, represent Yaakov and Esav, who started their lives on the same spiritual level. Just as one goat is an offering to G-d and the other is sent out to a barren wilderness, Yaakov ended up choosing a life of dedication to the service of G-d while Esav separated himself from the spiritual life, and in essence chose a life of spiritual wilderness and desolation. This total separation into two very different nations came about through Divine Providence. This is symbolized by the two lots. Even though a lottery seems to be a chance event, in reality the outcome is orchestrated. As the verse in Mishlei (16:33) indicates,“When the lot is cast in the lap, its entire judgment has been decided by G-d.”
The confession which the Kohen Gadol makes on the goat to be sent away is meant to induce fear of G-d and repentance on behalf of the nation. Their intentional transgressions are transferred to this goat, as if to say that they belong to the progeny of Esav, not to the progeny of Yaakov.
Abarbanel then offers another explanation which he feels is more correct, as it is closer to the simple meaning of the verses. The two goats represent the entire Congregation of Israel, albeit from two opposite perspectives. When the nation is serving G-d properly they are symbolized by the goat which is sacrificed, whose consumed innards represent the inner thoughts of the nation, and whose blood is sprinkled in the Holy of Holies, representing the highest form of devotion and connection to G-d. They then merit the ultimate reward in the World-to-Come. This is the meaning of the expression“a lot to G-d”. The word “lot” is actually a reference to reward or merit granted to the individual, whether for his righteousness or for his evil behavior. This reward can be understood as “one’s lot in life”. As the prophet Daniel states (12:13), “As for you, go to your end; you will rest; then arise for your portion (“lot”) at the end of days.” One’s lot is not coincidental; it is a result of Divine Providence. When the nation does not follow G-d’s path, then its lot and portion is to go to Azazel, that is, to be distanced from G-d’s holiness. They will be punished and suffer for their insolence by being sent into exile. The word “Azazel” is comprised of two separate words, “az” and “zel”. “Az” refers to insolence, while “zel” is Aramaic for “going”. This insolent nation will be exiled from the Divine Presence and will experience shame and dreadful disgrace.
However, the verses also indicate that this exile will not be permanent; it will not destroy the Jewish nation. The goat designated for Azazel will be“stood alive before G-d”.The people will hold on to their faith and observance until the time comes for their redemption from the evils that they have endured. The end of that verse reads,“to provide atonement through it, to send it to Azazel to the Wilderness”. Abarbanel proves that grammatically one can read those words as “from sending it to Azazel to the Wilderness.” Now the meaning of the verse is that atonement will be provided for the nation from having been sent to Azazel,i.e. the horrors of exile will be their atonement.
Finally, the verse tells us that the goat will be sent with “a designated man” to the desert. The Hebrew word for “designated” is very similar to the Hebrew word for “in his time.” The reference is to Nebuchadnetzer, a great and powerful man in his time, who will send the nation into a spiritual desert. The last verse in the section states that the he-goat will bear upon itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land. the Hebrew word for “uninhabited” (gezrah) has the same Hebrew root as the word for “decree”. This is a reference to G-d’s decree of the Babyonian exile, which will reduce the Land of Israel to desolation.
In summary, the ritual of the two goats hints at the reward and punishment of the nation, the providential bitterness of exile and the eventual redemption resulting from the atonement of that very exile.