Rabbi Ephraim Sprecher, Dean of Students and Senior Lecturer at Diaspora Yeshiva, is not only a popular speaker and teacher, but also a dynamic thinker and writer. A student of Harav Yaakov Kamenetsky and Harav Gedalia Schorr, Rabbi Sprecher was granted smicha (rabbinical ordination) by Torah Vodaath Yeshiva. Prior to his current position, Rabbi Sprecher was a professor of Judaic studies at Touro College in New York. In addition to his duties at Diaspora Yeshiva, Rabbi Sprecher writes a regular column on various Judaic topics in the Jewish Press, and lectures regularly at the OU Israel Center in Jerusalem.
Yom KippurÂ’s Mysterious Scapegoat: SatanÂ’s Bribe?
Published: Tuesday, May 24, 2011 08:04:05 PM
Number of views: 2404

What is the meaning and purpose of the strange ceremony of the scapegoat which involves pushing a goat off a cliff on Yom Kippur?  Ramban explains according to the Kabbalah that it is a symbolic pay-off or bribe to the Satan to prevent him from prosecuting Israel on Yom Kippur. That’s why the ceremony of the scapegoat is done through a lottery which is determined and controlled by G-d. Otherwise, the ceremony would resemble Demonology. This idea illustrates how much G-d loves Israel and is searching for ways to grant us atonement on Yom Kippur even to the point of appeasing the Satan.

That’s why the Hebrew word השטן (the Satan) has the numerical value of 364. During the 364 days of the solar year, Satan is given permission by G-d to accuse and prosecute Israel. However, on Yom Kippur, Satan is not permitted to accuse Israel at all. According to the Ramban, on Yom Kippur Satan is appeased by the gift of the scapegoat and remains silent.

Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim 3:46 sees the idea of the sa’ir,( the scapegoat) which is sent away as an action of arousing everyone to do teshuvah. According to him, “sins are not burdens that one can transfer from the back of one person to that of another, but all of these actions (regarding the sa’ir on Yom Kippur) are all meant as lessons to bring about fear in one’s soul, until one does teshuvah”.

The sa’ir (the scapegoat) which is sent away is meant as a lesson to teach us that sins must be eradicated from within the borders of Israel. G-d gives sinners an opportunity to improve their ways and demands that only sin be eliminated, not sinners.

According to the Rambam the purpose of the sa’ir (the scapegoat) which was sent away is to uproot various false beliefs from the heart, as in the verse, “they shall not sacrifice their sacrifices to the sa’irim (the demons)” (Vayikra 17:17). The word Azazel עזאזל is a composite of the words עז and זל, and implies a great and mighty denigration. The people saw how the sa’ir (the scapegoat) was loaded up with all the sins and was then thrown over a cliff where it was torn apart. As a result, the people were all greatly overwhelmed and impressed by how terrible it is to worship false gods. The results of this action were that נשא...עליו את-כל-עונתם – “it (the scapegoat) shall carry upon itself all their sins”. The contamination of sin left their souls, and the people again clung to their Creator. In our day Jews no longer sacrifice to demons. However, modern society has its own false gods, the deification of materialism, humanism and secularism.

ונתן אתם על-ראש השעיר “And he shall put them (the sins) on the head of the sa’ir (Vayikra 16:21) – means that the sinner will abandon his sins and will from now on forsake sin, for the word ונתן may be defined in the sense of separation. As to the verse ונשא...עונתם אל ארץ גזרה – “he will carry all their sins to a wasteland” – this refers to the one who carries the sa’ir. He will carry on his shoulders to a wasteland, עונתם – the sa’ir - עונתם has the same use here as חטאת – which means literally “sin”, but refers to the goat. Ramban explains that the intention of the Torah was to separate the people from idolatry, so that they should no longer offer their sacrifices to the sa’irim (demons).

The Ramban explains that the sa’ir la’Azazel (the scapegoat) is an expression of scorn for paganism and sa’irim (demonology), and educates the people to serve only G-d.

According to Kabbalah, the two sa’irim (goats of Yom Kippur) are the two qualities of good and evil that were implanted in man so as to give him free will. The גורל – the lot – is his lot to choose between good and evil. The one is to Hashem, as in the verse ובחרת בחיים – “choose life” (Devarim 30:19), while the other is to Azazel (Satan). It is up to each and every one to make the proper and correct choice.

The letters of the word עזאזל form the first letters (in a different order) of the verse (Koheles 7:14), זה לעמת - זה עשה הא-להים – “this as compared to this, Hashem created” – that both goats must be identical in size and appearance. This comparison shows that whatever exists in kedushah has a counterpart in tumah, and this is to provide the even balance of good and evil which makes free will possible.

The Talmud in Yoma 67 states that the sa’ir that is sent away is meant to atone for the sin of Uzza and Azazel, two angels who came down to earth and became human, at the time of Na’amah, sister of Tubal Cain, and who illicitly took married women for themselves (see Bereishis 6:1-4). That is why we read all the laws of forbidden marriages at the afternoon service on Yom Kippur to remind us of that first corruption of forbidden marriages, for which the sa’ir that is sent away comes to atone. It may be that our atonement here is based on finding merit for ourselves, by showing that even angels sinned and fell into the trap of sexual immorality. What then can one say of the sins of man, who is but flesh and blood?

The medrash in Devarim Rabbah, states that Moshe Rabbeinu said to Hashem, “Master of the Universe, even angels came and lusted for the women of the earth”. Why then blame your people, who are but flesh and blood? This concept adds merit to the nation of Israel on Yom Kippur.

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