The Cruel Death of the Scapegoat

In the Yom Kippur service with the two goats, it bothers me that one of the goats – the se’ir la’azazel – is taken out to be pushed off a cliff. The Mishna (Yoma 6:6) teaches that it was dashed to pieces before it made it halfway down the cliff. What was the point of doing something so cruel? In general the Torah commands us to slaughter animals in a humane way – cutting their vital organs instantly with a smooth, sharp knife. Why is this part of the Yom Kippur so different?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

You are right that the treatment of the scapegoat is quite distinct from how we relate to animals in general. The Torah forbids causing any unnecessary pain to an animal, and although we may make use of them for their labor and their meat, we are obligated to slaughter them in a very gentle manner. If so, why on Yom Kippur do we send the scapegoat to such a horrific death?

The answer is that this is exactly the point of Yom Kippur. The Torah teaches us that the scapegoat carries Israel’s sins with it to the desert (Leviticus 16:22). We are somehow giving a “gift” to Satan, and in the process casting off our sins. Are we really serving Satan this one day a year? And how can we “place” our sins on an animal and have it magically take them away? What truly happens with this service?

Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik zt”l used to explain based on an incident which occurred to him personally. One day he was studying in his study, and he was about to begin an especially intricate topic. He went out to tell his wife that he should not be disturbed by visitors during the course of it.

Not long after, the rabbi’s focus was jarred by a knock on his study door. He answered and in came a pauper who regularly came to the rabbi for charity. R. Soloveitchik asked, “Didn’t my wife tell you not to disturb me?” The pauper explained, “Well, I come every year and I was sure you wouldn’t mind.” The rabbi retorted: “Usually I give you $25. But this year, because of the interruption, you’re only getting 10!” And annoyed, he sent him off.

The rabbi returned to his studies. Not long after that he was disturbed again – this time by a loud crash coming from the front of his house. He hurried out to see what had happened. His wife had been backing out the car and accidentally ran over the garbage can, destroying it. After seeing that the only damage had been to the can, he asked her: “How much do these things cost?” She answered, “Oh, no big deal - $15!”

R. Soloveitchik explained that this is the idea behind giving a gift to Satan. During the entire year, we imagine that we are getting away with our sins. We sin, we enjoy ourselves, and nothing really happens. The sky doesn’t fall, we aren’t struck by lightning, and life basically just goes on.

One of the main messages of Yom Kippur is how false this perception is. Even if we do not see it, sin causes terrible spiritual devastation – to both ourselves and to the universe about. We never gained from our sins. The fleeting pleasures we might have thought we benefitted were by far offset by the terrible destruction we brought upon ourselves – just as the $15 the rabbi “saved” were soon collected some other way.

This is why we give a gift to Satan. The gains we thought he granted us when we indulged ourselves we send off and return to him. We want nothing of the pleasure and benefits we thought were ours. We give them back, and wash our hands to all our sinful behavior.

This is likewise one possible reason why the scapegoat is killed in such a destructive manner. It teaches us just how destructive our actions were. We thought we were sinning and getting away with it. But we now come face to face with how much destruction we brought into the world. Our sins were just as cruel to the entire universe as we now must be to the scapegoat. And only through this painful process of destruction and realization can our sins truly be expiated.

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