The special service performed in the Beit Ha-mikdash on Yom Kippur included the unusual “lottery” which determined the fates of two goats which were brought as atonement sacrifices on behalf of the nation. As the Torah commands in Sefer Vayikra (16:8), the kohen would draw lots to determine which of the two goats would be offered as a sacrifice in the Temple, and which would be brought out into “azazel” – the desert east of Jerusalem – and cast off a cliff, symbolizing the banishment of the nation’s sins. Both these sacrifices were unique: the sa’ir la-azazel (goat take to the desert) marked the only instance of an animal sacrifice offered outside the Mikdash, and the sa’ir le-Hashem (goat offered in the Mikdash) was unique in that its blood was sprinkled in the kodesh ha-kodashim – the inner sanctum of the Beit Ha-mikdash.
The Mishna in Masekhet Yoma (62a) establishes that the two goats were to be identical in both appearance and monetary value. These two goats were, initially, precisely the same, but their fates were the diametric opposites of one another – one was brought to a remote, desert location and sacrificed there, whereas the other was sacrificed and offered in the most sacred location in this world, in the innermost chamber of the Beit Ha-mikdash.
How might we explain the significance of these two goats, and why were they to be identical?
We are all comprised of two very different dimensions – one that is “le-Hashem,” sacred and sincerely devoted to God, and another that is “la-azazel,” vain and sinful. Like the two Yom Kippur goats, these two elements both seem identical, equal parts of our beings. On the surface, we appear to be self-contradictory, righteous in some ways and sinful in others; we are neither purely good or purely evil, but rather a messy composite of both. One of the goals of Yom Kippur is to firmly establish that at our core, we are “le-Hashem,” sincerely committed to the “kodesh ha-kodashim,” to the pure, devoted service of the Almighty. This is achieved through the “sa’ir la-azazel” – by banishing from within our beings all our vanity, our egotism, our selfishness, our dishonesty, our laxity, our disobedience, and all our other vices – and sending them as far away as possible. We withdraw from all forms of physical enjoyment and from all mundane activity, and eliminate all feelings of anger, jealousy and resentment, and we repeatedly confess our wrongdoing, resolutely proclaiming that we want all our negative habits and tendencies in “azazel,” entirely eliminated from our beings, so we can devote ourselves purely and sincerely “le-Hashem,” and reach the “kodesh ha-kodashim,” the heights of sanctity that we truly desire. The statement we make on Yom Kippur is that although the two dimensions of our beings appear identical, they are, in fact, precise opposites of one another. One dimension defines our essence, while the other interferes with the actualization of our essence. The “sa’ir le-Hashem” represents who we truly are, and who we are able to be once we banish the “sa’ir le-Hashem,” the pressures, desires and weaknesses that get in the way.
Rav David of Tolna (cited in Kenesset David) once sought to encourage his chassidim who before Yom Kippur felt distraught over the unlikelihood of achieving true, permanent repentance, and he suggested a comparison to a well-known halakha involving property rights. Normally, a person who can prove having resided in a property for three years, and claims that he legally acquired that property from the original owner, is awarded the property. However, the presumed owner can disrupt this process by occasionally expressing “mecha’a” – “protest,” announcing that the squatter’s presence on the property in unlawful, done without his approval, and thus does not indicate a transfer of ownership. By voicing this “protest,” the owner prevents the squatter from being able to prove his rights to the land on the basis of his three-year presence.
The purpose of Yom Kippur, Rav David of Tolna explained, is to “protest” the presence of the yetzer ha-ra (evil inclination) within our beings. We express our wish to banish all our vices to “azazel,” to the remotest, most distant regions, that we do not in any way approve of its residence in our minds and hearts. The expectation is not that we will live all year long with the same spiritual focus and intensity which we experience on Yom Kippur, but rather that we define the core essence of our identity by our spiritual aspirations, and not by our faults and negative habits. We reject our vices as an unwanted “squatter” which violates the “kodesh ha-kodashim,” our sacred essence, pronouncing that while our positive and negative habits might appear to have equal standing, the former reflects our true essence, while the latter is something we fiercely reject, and which we struggle each day to eliminate and overcome.