Thoughts on Yom Kippur


Moshe Ben-Chaim



I dedicate this article to a longtime friend Yisrael Moshe, who, although distant geographically, remains close like family, since I have been a ‘ben bayis’ (household member) in his home for three decades. “Moshe, the entire community prays for God’s Providence for your speedy recovery. You are deserving.” Moshe’s brother and I study each morning via telephone, as he rises early from the West Coast to learn before leaving to work each day. His sustained, energetic zeal for Torah study at such early hours in his time zone is inspiring. Their father has been one of my cherished Rebbeim for these many decades, and is greatly responsible for my studies and teachings. His mastery, patience, and concerned direction in all areas cannot be repaid. And all of us owe a great debt of gratitude to the Rebbetzin for her unwavering support of Torah, and Hachnasas Orchim (welcoming of guests). Her backbone and dedication through times glad and sad has made an indelible mark on me, and her entire family. I don’t know from where you get your strength and courage, but retain it, because Jacob is almost a Bar Mitzvah, and will only gain from your example. Your warmth is unmatched, as is your caring and genuine personality. Together, this family dedicates themselves to God, honesty, and to everyone who enters their lives. I, and the entire community wish you all health, wealth and happiness for this, and many decades. Refuah Shlaymah, v’Ksiva v’Chasima Tova l’Kulchem.


Continuing with words of chizzuk (strength) I wish to share some thoughts on Yom Kippur. My friend Aaron called two nights ago, sharing with me some interesting insights into the Azazael the Yom Kippur Scapegoat. As we learn, two goats were presented before God, and a lot was cast which pronounced the fate of each: one was sacrificed, and the other was led by an appointed individual to its certain death: it was led through the desert and ultimately hurled off Mount Azazael, the jagged cliff which dismembered the descending goat before it hit ground.


Aaron explained the Rabbis words, “God gave Azazael is portion”. What does this mean? As Aaron explained, during bondage, the Jews absorbed the Egyptian worship of animals. One idolatrous attachment was addressed by the slaughter of the famous Paschal Lamb, which we kill in refutation of Egypt’s proclaimed deity. To benefit from God’s Egyptian Exodus, the Jews must have killed that lamb. Otherwise, they could not accept God, and Torah, as their view of God would include some harbored reverence of that lamb. Such reverence cannot coexist with the true concept of God, who is ‘alone’ in His role as Creator. Rashi states four fifths of thee Jews in Egypt perished. They could not extricate themselves from idolatry. However, many others who successfully abandoned lamb worship, nonetheless, held steadfast to another deified animal: the goat. The destruction of the goat dedicated to Azazael is tied to Egyptian goat worship. “And you shall no longer sacrifice to the goats.” (Lev. 17:7) As Aaron mentioned, goats are always chewing: a base human instinct is the appetitive drive. In specific, goats over other animals become obsessed with a single partner in copulation. Man too gravitates to the appetitive and sexual drives, so perhaps, the goat attracts man on an unconscious level, as it too enjoys and displays unrestrained lust. Perhaps, it is man’s very instincts that chose the goat over all other animals, as an expression and satisfaction of his own makeup. Egypt selected the goat, not by accident, but because it “appealed” to those lustful and unrestrained oppressors, the Egyptians. Jews too are made of the same cloth, and absorbed this instinctual magnetism. They too accepted the practice of sacrificing to the goats.


How does God address this problem of the Jews’ attachment to the goat? “God gave Azazael is portion”. Aaron explained this to mean that although Egypt and those Jews felt there was some “force” out there, the powerful goat-god, God’s  “giving its portion” means that God controls all, and no other forces exist outside of Him. God “giving” a portion to the goat (Azazael), means that God is solely responsible for this imagined “force” embodied in the goat’s traits. In other words, “Do not think as did Egypt, that the goat and imagined desert demons (one and the same) are some independent force that reign outside of God’s control. No, all is under God’s hand, and He also created what you only perceive as a “force”, but is in fact, man’s instincts. However, these are all man’s projections. No forces exist outside of God, and He demonstrates this by commanding a tragic end to the goat, to that presumed desert god. We should react, “How can we kill a real god?” From the planned and unimpeded death of the goat, we learn that it cannot protect itself. It is not a god! Egypt assumed otherwise. All of those imagined desert demons and forces could not protect this goat, what other cultures assumed to be a god. Hence, the idea that the goat is a supernatural being is dismissed. Simultaneously, God is viewed as superior, since nothing opposed His command to kill this “god”.


But why allow such a practice to begin with? After all, the Rabbis admit that this scapegoat sent to Azazael is one of three Torah commands, regarding which; the idolatrous nations of the world, and our own instincts accuse the Torah. They say about Azazael, we are sacrificing outside the Holy Temple, “just as they do” to their gods! How can this be that the Torah allows such a practice? Cannot such a practice mislead us, and encourage idolatrous sacrifice in the desert, just as before?


Let us understand: these goat-gods, demons or shadim, are all imagined. The Talmud teaches that they are “seen” in only four locations: in pits or caves, mountaintops, at night…and in the desert. Why this limited travel? Can’t they move freely? The answer would be yes, if they were real beings. But the Talmud is pointing to something: these four instances where demons are seen, share a common bond: they are places where man is isolated. And when man is alone, his powerful social need is awakened, and yearns for at least one other person to be with, to talk to…to “see”. So, he does, he sees things. His imagination, coupled with his strong social need, creates daydreams of people, or animals that embody some human quality. This affords the solitary individual some sense of company, or it caters to his fears. And as we said, goats embody man’s two base instincts. So when man is alone, as he used to be in the old days as he traveled across plains and deserts by foot, his loneliness would create visions. The Talmud teaches us that we should not “greet” these demons, for by doing so; we elevate what is imaginary, to the status of “reality”. Thereby, the Torah aptly guards man against falling prey to all dangers, and psychological dangers are at the forefront of the battle. Goat gods and demons are not real, and we must not treat them as real.


The command not to sacrifice in the desert is the response to this behavior. It puts a lid on any expression of desert god sacrifices. But would not Azazael actually encourage desert sacrifice? The answer is no. This is because God, and not man, initiates Azazael[1]. And if man does not initiate this practice, it is not an expression of his imagination: it is not idolatry. It is also a controlled activity, once a year. The opening of the parsha Acharay Mos highlights this. This Parsha almost immediately describes the Azazael scapegoat. But before doing so, God tells Moses to speak to his brother Aaron, that he may not enter the Temple at his discretion. And the reason God says this must be observed is because “I appear in cloud”. What type of explanation is this? How does God’s appearance in cloud reasonably demand that Aaron not enter the Temple to sacrifice at any time? And why mention this prohibition here? The reasoning is sound: Aaron’s two sons were just killed by God, precisely because they sacrificed, without being commanded. Such an act is prohibited, as it reveals man’s feeling that he knows better than God how to sacrifice. This religious emotion can kill us. What is God’s response? “Do not sacrifice at all times….for I appear in cloud.” “Cloud” means to say, “I am hidden. You cannot know Me, nor have you any right to decide when or how to sacrifice to Me.” God is teaching us that Aaron’s sons were killed for acting on their feeling that they knew better than God when to sacrifice. God condemned them for brining a “strange fire” which was not commanded.


Although well intended, our intentions must follow truth, and cannot dictate truth. The religions of the world express the latter sentiment; “Our feelings justify and validate our actions as God’s will.” But this too, God reprimands, “For in the thoughts of my heart I will go.” (Deut. 29:18) This is cited in the Torah as man’s justification for deviating from God’s words, but God does not accept such a justification and other religions borne of man’s feelings, for man cannot know better than God. God says this man will not be forgiven. Our actions must follow He who knows better. Thus, Judaism is a religion of accepting objective reality, where other religions manufacture a subjective “reality”, assuming man’s feelings dictate reality. Thus, they forever strive to force the external world to comply with their fantasies, only to be confronted at every turn with frustration: for the real world does not function according to their infantile fantasies carried throughout adulthood.


Now, if the Rabbis stated that the Azazael scapegoat appears to the nations as idolatry, why did God see fit to allow it? I suggest that God desired the Jews to witness this part of our makeup, as expressed in “God gave a portion” to the Azazael. God is placing this idolatrous act on a pedestal, on this one day of Yom Kippur. In other words, God is saying, “See this Azazael? This is what your instincts are prone to do; you sacrificed a goat to demons in the desert. Recognize your instinctual nature, that it can lead you to falsehoods (defenseless goat-gods), and its tragic end.” Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, requires man’s acceptance of his instinctual nature. Apprehending this reality of our instinctual nature must precede our address of these instinctual drives.


The Rabbis also quote “Samael” (translated as “the blinding agent[2]”) or Satan. Samael normally conveys our sins to God. But on Yom Kippur, all it has are praises for this Jewish nation, who appear as angels; not eating, not sitting, not wearing shoes, who are at peace with one another, and are free of sin. God hears the prosecutor’s (Samael’s) praise of the Jews, and then He atones them for the sins of the Temple and the nation. What does this metaphor mean? The Rabbis mean to teach the second half of Yom Kippur’s lesson: why God atones us. We are atoned due to our demonstration that we can in fact control the instincts, as we display with our abstention from pleasure in these areas. The very fact that we can overcome our drives demonstrates our level, as individuals who can se the truth, and master our appetites. This level renders us worthy of life. We can be atoned. Our yearly overindulgence is the cause of our attachment to these desires. As we abstain from them this day of Yom Kippur, we recognize our desires as we ache for them. This must awaken us to just how involved we are in pursuing these pleasures. Knowledge of the sin is the first step towards dealing with it. Through abstention in these areas, we can study ourselves, and gauge our activities, thereby moving from a life of temporal pleasures, to a life of eternal wisdom.


Yom Kippur straddles both issues: through the Azazael scapegoat we recognize the instinctual and idolatrous emotions which exist in us all, and as a Rabbi once taught, how that life leads to a tragic end. And through fasting and abstention from other pleasures, we demonstrate our ability to control those desires, and merit atonement. Since this day is all about atonement, we focus on the cause for our need for atonement: the instinctual nature of man. The book of Jonah is therefore read, as it reminds us of the inhabitants of Ninveh, who heeded God’s warning, and whose lives were spared as they repented from their sins. Man can overcome his emotions.


May we all benefit from this day, and be sealed for life. Chasima Tovah.




[1] Simultaneously, we cannot bring animals anywhere except in God’s Temple. In the end, this Azazael scapegoat is to heighten our awareness of our idolatrous natures, while adhering to God’s command. This scapegoat mission to the desert, is following God’s prescribed laws, and is no longer an expression of man’s idolatrous practices, as God initiated this one-time yearly demonstration.

[2] Samael “blinds” man from the truth, and leads us astray after instinctual gratification.