SALT - Thursday, 11 Tishrei 5779 - September 20, 2018

  • Rav David Silverberg
            In the introduction to the poem of Haazinu, Moshe proclaims that his words shall descend “ke-se’irim alei desheh” – like windswept rain falling upon grass (32:2; see Targum Onkelos and Rashi). 
            The Sifrei, interestingly enough, associates the word “se’irim” in this verse – which seems to refer to rainstorms – with the two se’irim (goats) used as part of the special Yom Kippur service in the Beit Ha-mikdash.  As the Torah describes in Sefer Vayikra (16), and as we discuss in the avoda section of the Yom Kippur prayers, the Yom Kippur service in the Mikdash included two atonement goats, one which was offered as a sacrifice, and the other sent away into the desert east of Jerusalem.  The Sifrei comments that Moshe compared his teaching to “se’irim” to indicate that “just as these goats come for sins and atone, similarly, words of Torah atone for sins.”
            On one level, the Sifrei here simply intends to extol the value of Torah study, noting that it serves to atone for wrongdoing just as sacrifices do.  But how might we explain the specific association between learning and the two Yom Kippur goats?
            As mentioned, one of the Yom Kippur goats was sent out to the wilderness, where it was killed, symbolizing the banishment of Benei Yisrael’s sins, as the Torah itself explains (“Ve-nasa ha-sa’ir alav et kol avonotam el eretz gezeira” – Vayikra 16:22).  The other goat was slaughtered as a sacrifice, and its blood was sprinkled in the kodesh ha-kodashim, the innermost sanctum of the Beit Ha-mikdash, where the kohen gadol entered to sprinkle sacrificial blood only on Yom Kippur.  Together, the two atonement goats symbolize the process of banishing our faults and shortcomings from our beings, so we are capable and worthy of entering the kodesh ha-kodashim, so we can serve the Almighty with complete purity of mind and heart.  Once we rid ourselves of our vices and bad habits, we are able to properly serve God.
            By comparing Torah study to the ritual of the Yom Kippur goats, Chazal perhaps instruct that ridding ourselves of our faults is only one part of the teshuva process.  Alongside our efforts to eliminate all that is wrong within ourselves, we must also work to fill ourselves with goodness.  Focusing strictly on what we should not be doing is insufficient; we must also actively pursue knowledge and guidance so we know what we should be doing.  The process of teshuva, of growth and self-improvement, includes both the “se’irim” – the banishment of our bad habits, as well as “learning” – developing good habits, imbibing the timeless values and teachings of the Torah so we live our lives each day the way we are supposed to live.  Just as we earn atonement by working to rid ourselves of our negative tendencies, so do we earn atonement by constantly striving to learn and gain knowledge that will guide us along the path we ought to be following throughout our lives.