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Yom Kippur: Throwing Away Our Arrogance

Perhaps the most intriguing feature of the Yom Kippur service that was performed in the Bet Ha’mikdash is the “Sa’ir La’azazel,” the goat that was carried out to the desert and cast off a cliff, symbolic of the banishment of Beneh Yisrael’s sins. As the Torah describes in the Book of Vayikra (16), the Kohen Gadol would take two goats and cast lots to determine which would be offered as a sacrifice in the Bet Ha’mikdash, and which would be carried out into the desert.

Many commentators addressed the question of how to explain the meaning of this unusual ritual. Normally, the Torah strictly forbids any sort of sacrificial offerings outside the Bet Ha’mikdash. Animal sacrifices must be offered only in the Bet Ha’mikdash in Jerusalem, and only in the specific format dictated by the Halacha – proper slaughtering, followed by the sprinkling of the blood on the altar and the placement of certain parts of the animal on the altar to be burned. Why suddenly on Yom Kippur does the Torah require this unusual “sacrifice,” taking an animal out to the desert and throwing it off a cliff?

One explanation is offered by the Meshech Hochma commentary (by Rav Meir Simcha Ha’kohen of Dvinsk, 1843-1926), in Parashat Ahareh-Mot. He writes that the two goats of the Yom Kippur service atoned for the two categories of sin that people commit: violations between man and G-d (“Ben Adam La’Makom”) and sins between man and his fellow (“Ben Adam La’habero”). Specifically, the goat offered as a sacrifice in the Bet Ha’mikdash atoned for sins “Ben Adam La’Makom,” whereas the “Sa’ir La’azazel” atoned for interpersonal violations. To explain the association between the “Sa’ir La’azazel” and interpersonal offenses, the Meshech Hochma draws our attention to the Halacha requiring tying a crimson string on the horns of the goat, and that the string should have the weight of two Sela’im. This weight – two Sela’im – is familiar to us from a different context. The Gemara in Masechet Megilla (16b) tells that Yosef’s brothers envied him because their father, Yaakob, made for him a special cloak that contained two Sela’im more material than the amount used for their garments. This jealousy precipitated the sale of Yosef, the quintessential sin “Ben Adam La’habero” that is the root of all sins that Jews have committed against one another ever since. The “Sa’ir La’azazel” contained a piece of material weighing two Sela’im because it served to atone for the nation’s interpersonal sins, which have their origins in the sale of Yosef, which resulted from the extra two Sela’im of material in Yosef’s garment.

On this basis, the Meshech Hochma proceeds to explain the unusual manner of “sacrificing” this goat – by throwing it off a tall cliff. The root cause of all interpersonal offenses is arrogance. We feel entitled to hurt, insult, offend, cheat and disregard our fellow because we feel we are more important than he is. When we feel we are worth more than our fellow Jew, we grant ourselves the right to mistreat him. In order to atone for our interpersonal sins, then, we need to throw our arrogance off a cliff, so-to-speak, to humble ourselves and recognize that our feelings, our sensitivities, our needs and our concerns are no more important than those of our fellow. The “Sa’ir La’azazel” is brought to a tall cliff and then thrown down to symbolize the breaking of our arrogance that must occur as part of our process of repentance on Yom Kippur. In order for us to earn atonement for the wrongs committed against our fellow Jew, we need to throw away our arrogance, to lower our heads and learn to value the needs and feelings of our fellow Jew as much we value our own needs and feelings.

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699 Parashot found