The Power of Habit in the Performance of Mitzvot

Our parsha deals with, among other things, the placing of lots upon the two he-goats during Yom Kippur, as it is written: “Aaron shall place lots upon the two he-goats, one lot for the L-RD and one lot for Azazel” (Leviticus 16:8). How were these lots taken?

The two he-goats were placed on either side of the High Priest, one to his left and the other to his right. Two lots were then placed in a box, one labeled “for the L-RD” and the other “for Azazel”, and the High Priest took these into each of his hands. The lot drawn in his left hand was placed on the he-goat to his left, and the lot in his right hand was placed on the he-goat to his right (see Yoma 37a, 39a, which explain the process in detail).

This placing of lots is difficult to understand. Why did G-d command that the High Priest proceed in this way, rather than deciding for himself which he-goat he would take for Hashem or Azazel, with G-d’s Providence guiding him to make the right choice? In what way was the drawing of lots necessary?

We will also try to understand why the Torah commands that two he-goats be taken, rather than rams, turtledoves, or any other type of animal.

There is also another problem: According to the Sages, before the he-goat for Azazel even reached halfway to the bottom of the mountain (from the summit, off of which it was thrown), it was already crushed and mangled. We may ask why it was necessary to throw it off the top of the mountain, rather than to slaughter or strangle it, or to kill it by the sword, by fire, or stoning. What is the significance of throwing if off a mountain?

In my humble opinion, we must understand this passage as alluding to something else. By the drawing of lots, G-d is showing the Children of Israel the greatness of the mitzvot, for the performance of mitzvot comprises two elements, and for that matter the acknowledgment of a sin. The first is the habit that comprises the mitzvah or the sin. When someone is in the habit of only performing mitzvot, sin does not present itself to him, for one mitzvah brings about another (Perkei Avoth 4:2; Avoth d’Rabbi Nathan 25:4), without mentioning the fact that “great is a mitzvah, for it causes those who perform it to inherit this world and the World to Come” (Midrash Gadol Ch. 6). This greatness even covers a deed that was performed with ulterior motives (Nazir 23b; Horayot 10b). Alternatively, the force of habit can also bring about a sin, which in turn brings on others (Perkei Avoth 4:2). This is why G-d commanded that lots be drawn (goral), for the letters of this word form the word hergel (“habit”). This teaches the Children of Israel to perform mitzvot habitually, a habit that will help them to constantly place their prayers and mitzvot before G-d so that they will always be like a pleasing sacrifice to Him. This is the significance of the drawing of lots. The second element is the direct intent that we put into the performance of mitzvot (or sins) – the desire to perform the Creator’s will.

Nevertheless, if we commit sins to the point of getting into the habit of doing so, we fall into the realm of the evil inclination, which as we know is called a “mountain” (Sukkah 52a). We can then expect a bitter end, for when the Satan makes a man transgress, he will be punished like the he-goat that is sent to the mountain (which evokes the evil inclination) to be torn to bits and dismembered. Therein lies the allusion contained in the choice of the two he-goats, the mountain, and the dismemberment of the animal.

We can then understand why he-goats are required rather than other animals, for they belong to the same family as the ez (“goat”), which evokes az (“impudence”). Arrogance can easily lead to sin (“The az [impudent] is headed for Gehinnom” – Perkei Avoth 5:20). Thus the habit of committing sins will earn him the punishment of being torn to bits like the he-goat sent towards Azazel, which is an expiatory sacrifice alluding to sin.

Inversely, a person who has the habit of performing mitzvot and good deeds will succeed in everything he does. He will be “az [‘bold’] as a leopard … to carry out the will of [his] Father in Heaven” (Perkei Avoth 5:20). Such a person will end up attaining holiness and be worthy of being sacrificed on the altar to atone for the sins of the Children of Israel. This is the second he-goat, which was drawn by lots for Hashem and sacrificed for the atonement of the Children of Israel’s sins.

We now understand why lots needed to be drawn, why he-goats were involved, and why everything was done to these two he-goats (which represented the upright and the sinners): It encourages us to resemble a sacrifice before Hashem, rather than an atonement sacrifice cut into pieces, and to invest all our az (“boldness”) into holiness.

Now a man possesses the necessary strength to leave the realm of the evil inclination (the mountain of Azazel) and to enter the realm of the good inclination (the sacrifice for Hashem), which we will better understand after a short introduction on the subject.

The Ramchal says that when a man sins, the evil inclination seizes him and he has neither the will nor the energy to escape. Even after repenting, it is difficult for him to break free of this hold, just as a prisoner cannot free himself from his own cell. The only way to break these fetters and liberate himself is to be reprimanded.

Let us explain what this consists of. It is actually a great mitzvah to reprimand one’s fellow (Leviticus 19:17), yet it is difficult to see the connection between this mitzvah and the act of liberating oneself from the grip of the evil inclination.

What the Ramchal meant to say is that when nobody reprimands a man for the sins he has committed, and when nobody rattles him, he has no chance of liberating himself from the grip of the evil inclination. This is why he specifies “to be reprimanded,” which means that a man should reprimand himself. He should reflect upon returning to G-d, and so his uncircumcised heart will be broken and little by little he will free himself from the power of evil.

It is written, “You shall surely rebuke your fellow” (Leviticus 19:17). If you are a prisoner of the evil inclination and there is nobody to reprimand you, it is the evil inclination that becomes your fellow. This means that you must reprimand yourself, and do the same to your fellow (none other than the evil inclination), until you dominate it and liberate yourself from its grip. In fact we know that to deceive a man, the evil inclination presents itself to him with love and tenderness. The Sages describe this process as follows: The evil inclination is at first like a passerby, then as a guest, until finally it becomes the master of the home (Sukkah 52b; Bereshith Rabba 22:11). This means that in the beginning it speaks a sweet talk, like someone who is concerned with his friend’s well-being, yet “inside of him he lays his ambush” (Jeremiah 9:7), all while secretly scorning those who fall into its power, for it only appears to want their good. This is why a man should reprimand himself, for doing so will allow him to leave the realm of this arrogant one, from that high mountain (the evil inclination), and to arrive into the realm of the good inclination and become like a sacrifice before G-d, worthy of atoning for others by the holiness of his deeds.


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