The Goat for Azazel

This week’s parsha states, “The goat destined by lot for Azazel…send it to Azazel, into the desert” (Leviticus 16:10). It is also written, “The goat will bear upon itself all the iniquities to a solitary land, and he should send the goat into the desert” (v.22).

The Sages have said (Seder Olam 6) that on Yom Kippur the Holy One, blessed be He, joyfully forgave the Children of Israel for the sin of the golden calf, telling Moses: “I have forgiven according to your word” (Numbers 14:20). Moses then descended from the mountain with the second set of tablets in his hands. Thus it is written, “For on this day he shall make atonement for you, to cleanse you from all your sins” (Leviticus 16:30). Our Sages have also said that the goat for Azazel (which was not sacrificed in the Sanctuary, but instead was sent into the desert) is meant to serve as a gift from Hashem to Esau’s ministering angel, which is the evil inclination and the Angel of Death (see Zohar I:190a; II:237b). The goat is meant to convince it not to disrupt the sanctity of Yom Kippur by making accusations against the Jewish people. It is similar to the gift that Jacob sent to his brother to satisfy his greed and change his mind.

This explanation presents some difficulties that needs to be addressed: 1) Why must a bribe be given to the ministering angel of Esau, rather than to the angel of another nation? 2) Without this bribe, would the Holy One, blessed be He, have been unable to silence Israel’s accusers? 3) Why is this goat, which is a gift for Esau’s ministering angel, called the “goat for Azazel”? Why does it not go by another name? 4) Finally, why did Moses descend from the mountain on Yom Kippur? Why did he need to stay on the mountain for another forty days and forty nights in order to receive the second set of tablets, as it written: “I remained on the mountain like the first days, forty days and forty nights” (Deuteronomy 10:10)? Would it not have been enough for him to ascend and then immediately descend with the second set of tablets? Moses already knew the Torah from the first time he ascended Mount Sinai, for the Sages have said that Hashem taught him the written Torah during the day, and during the night He taught him the oral Torah (see Shemot Rabba 47:5). Since Moses also reviewed what he learned, why did he have to stay for another forty days and forty nights?

We shall attempt to explain. Let us first site the teaching of the Sages on the verse, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau” (Genesis 27:22). Here the Sages have said, “When the voice of Jacob rings out in the synagogues, Esau has no hands [i.e., he is rendered powerless]” (Bereshith Rabba 65:20). On the verse, “When you are aggrieved, you may cast off his yoke from upon your neck” (Genesis 27:40), the Sages have also said that Isaac gave Esau the following blessing: “If you see your brother Jacob throwing off the yoke of Torah from upon his neck, then decree his destruction and you will become his master” (Bereshith Rabba 67:7). In Isaac’s blessing to Jacob – on which depends the entire existence of Jacob and Israel for the generations to come – he told him that the entire universe exists only by virtue of the Shechinah’s presence and the study of Torah. When the Shechinah is no longer present, the world will cease to exist. Now the presence of the Shechinah only comes by the merit of Torah, for it is what sustains the world. Therefore without the Torah, the world could not exist, as it is written: “If not for My covenant, I would not have appointed days and nights, the decrees of heaven and earth” (Jeremiah 33:25). Here the Sages explain, “If not for the Torah, heaven and earth would not endure” (Pesachim 68b). In the Zohar as well, we find the Torah described as “the foundation of the upper and the lower worlds” (Zohar I:185a). Even if the world could go on existing, the hand of Esau would still rule. This is what Isaac told Jacob by allusion: Either the voice of Torah will be heard, or the voice Esau will be heard. Hence Jacob’s primary weapon in his battle against Esau is the Torah, which is the goal of Creation. Through it, a person can exert an enormous influence on all the worlds. This allows us to understand why it is precisely the ministering angel of Esau (rather than some other angel) that is “bribed” on Yom Kippur. The reason behind all sins lies in a neglect of Torah, and since the voice of Jacob is not heard, this strengthens the voice and hands of Esau to do evil and make accusations on Yom Kippur, the awesome day of judgment. The voice of Esau is the voice of accusation, and Isaac’s pronouncements cannot be changed, for there is a judgment and a Judge. Hence Esau’s ministering angel is bribed by a goat chosen by the High Priest, upon which he lays his hands. He also evokes Hashem’s Name over the goat, which greatly nourishes the Satan. Hence it is ready to remain silent and not bring forth the bundle of sins that it had prepared for accusing the Children of Israel.

Even in our days, when there is no Temple and we no longer send a goat to Azazel, this parsha is still read on Yom Kippur. We are therefore considered to have enticed it through this gift, for prayer replaces offerings. We can now understand why Moses chose to descend with the second set of tablets precisely on Yom Kippur, not some other day, for he wanted to show the Children of Israel that it is only by the power of Torah that they can silence their accusers on Yom Kippur, ensuring that Esau’s ministering angel will yield before holiness. Also at that time, Moses told the Children of Israel that the sin of the golden calf had been forgiven, hinting to them that by repentance and Torah, Hashem would silence their accusers.

We know what the Sages have said regarding this subject, namely: “We have learned that Israel nourishes their Father in Heaven” (Zohar III:7b). Yet with our tiny intellects, it seems difficult to understand how man, who comes from dust and returns to dust (Genesis 3:19) can “nourish” Hashem, Who is omnipotent and nourishes all that lives. Yet it is G-d’s will that the Children of Israel should be connected to Him at each instant through Torah. This is what, as it were, “nourishes” Hashem, Who then spreads abundance upon us and disregards the voice of our accusers. That being the case, Hashem gave the Children of Israel the responsibility of being able to “nourish” Him and silence their accusers, but only through Torah. This issue is discussed by the Rebbe of Radomsk in his saintly book Tiferet Shlomo. At the end of his chapter on Parsha Acharei Mot, on the verse, “You shall keep My statutes and My ordinances, which man shall carry out and by which he shall live; I am the L-RD” (Leviticus 18:5), the Rebbe writes: “All the mitzvot that the Children of Israel perform are a tikkun for the first man, who contained every soul within himself (Tikkunei Zohar 56,90b). This is the meaning of the expression, ‘Which man shall carry out and by which he shall live; I am the L-RD,’ as if to say that this constitutes Hashem’s strength, as it is written: Israel ‘nourishes’ their Father in Heaven.”

This is the significance of the preparations that we make on the eve of Yom Kippur, when we repent and resolve to do only good from now on. This is how we “nourish” Hashem, prompting Him to silence our accusers.


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