Temple Service - Two Little Goats: Offerings Response on Ask the Rabbi
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Temple Service - Two Little Goats

I’ve always been puzzled: What is the significance of the casting lots on two identical goats during the Yom Kippur service in the Holy Temple?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

God tells Moses that Aaron should perform the Yom Kippur services. It is his job to intercede for the Israelites with God, bear their prayers aloft, and seek forgiveness for their transgressions.

The central event of the service involves casting lots (like dice) on two identical goats. One goat is then sacrificed and its blood sprinkled in the Tabernacle's innermost sanctum, the Holy of Holies. The other goat becomes the "scapegoat." Aaron places his hands on it and confesses the Nation's mistakes. The scapegoat is then thrown over a cliff, symbolically bearing the guilt of the people on its head (Leviticus 16:1-28).

Two men may be identical in genes, upbringing, and experience. One sanctifies his life, and uplifts the world around him. The other destroys himself, and drags the world down with him. This is the miracle of free will.

The psychologist Victor Frankl survived the Nazi death camps. He points out that in the camps some people became monsters and others became saints.

Pain embitters some people; their misery taints the lives of all around them. Pain deepens other people; they grow and enhance the lives of everyone they know. Whatever the circumstances of our lives, we still have choice. That is the meaning of "free will."

The two Yom Kippur goats begin identical. Then one ascends to the highest level of holiness, while the other achieves the deepest shame.

Though Aaron's loss might have embittered him, instead it made him a greater, deeper, better person. Having demonstrated in his own life the power of free will, Aaron could now lead the Israelites toward a greater intimacy with God on Yom Kippur.

It has been my experience that a moment of tragedy is no time for philosophy. All life's energy goes into coping and getting though the day. But eventually, the pain recedes, and then looking carefully, we may find it has left behind gifts of insight into the meaning of our lives.

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