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The Goat for Azazel and Free Choice
Do we have free choice?

The Goat for Azazel and Free Choice

Based on an article in Parasha U’Likcha by Rabbi Moshe Grylak

by Braha Bender


Free choice. It is the assumption behind every ethical system the world over. No one can be expected to behave justly despite the many temptations of immoral behaviour unless they have the free choice to do so. We feel ourselves to have free choice, but is that really so obvious?

Monkeys, for example, do not have free choice. Nature and nurture write the matrixes in their brains dictating every choice they have. Feel like having a banana? Hunger peals loud bells across the nervous system, or satiation sluggishly repeals the offer. There is no choice there, only the commands of an intricate computer spitting out impulses to the limbs moment by meaningless moment.

But human beings, we are assumed to have free choice. We are expected to exhibit moral behaviour. The Torah goes one step further. The Torah tells us that we are expected to choose moral behaviour no matter what. Circumstances may change the application, but they do not change the standards of ethical demands. Moral requirements don’t evaporate in the face of very great desire. To the contrary, the moment the high-pitched whine of lust grows most crippling is when Torah values have their greatest opportunity to shine. It’s up to you.

The Torah assumes the existence of free choice, but not without explanation. The Torah claims the existence of the human soul. The soul, “a part of God from above”, is that element in man which allows him to transcend the labyrinth of nature and nurture in favour of deeper insight and greater good. This goes beyond the delayed gratification of the properly socialised human animal. This extraordinary quality has the opportunity to come to light specifically when the going gets tough. When the animal in us would otherwise behave as such.

Free choice, claims the Torah, is unimpeded. Free choice takes place when both the immoral and moral options for behaviour are equally accessible. When we can go either way. The crossroads yawn open before us perhaps only a few times in a lifetime, perhaps several times a day. At those moments, we define our identity. We choose who we will be, heroic or pathetic. We create, like God, the reality of what we are. And only we can change it.

“Everything is in the hands of Above except recognition of Above.” If we choose to stay earthy, we will stay earthy. But Torah promises that we will have to live with ourselves for eternity, no matter what we choose.

Yom Kippur is a day for facing that reality. The masks are stripped away. In many communities, adults wear white to symbolize tahara, a pure openness to spiritual connection. We don’t eat on Yom Kippur, not because we are in mourning, but because we take this one day a year as a recess from our physical needs. Judaism is a religion of integration; we don’t seek to escape our bodies. Yet on Yom Kippur, our focus is elsewhere. The day has the potential to transform, and when we still benefitted from the existence of the holy Beis HaMikdash (temple), it had the potential to transform even more.

One of the powerful practices that took place in the Beis HaMikdash once a year on Yom Kippur was called the se’ir l’azazel. Se’ir means goat. Azazel was the name of a barren desert region, windswept and pocked with canyons, located within walking distance outside Jerusalem. The ritual called for two goats, identical almost down to the last hair, to be brought before the kohen (priest) in the courtyard of the Beis HaMikdash:

“He shall take the two he-goats and stand them before Hashem, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Aharon [the high priest] shall place lots upon the two he-goats: one lot ‘for Hashem’ and one lot ‘for Azazel’. Aharon shall bring the he-goat designated by lot for Hashem, and make it a sin-offering. And the he-goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be stood alive before Hashem, to provide atonement through it, to send it to Azazel to the Wilderness.” (Leviticus 16:7-10)

What did this ritual mean for the individual Jew standing in the courtyard of the Beis HaMikdash? The goat is an obstinate, insolent animal. Stubborn and determined, a goat characterizes the impulse to go our own way despite all efforts to draw us elsewhere. The sensitive person saw his own human nature in the two animals.

Human beings have a unique ability to stand against the tide. What haven’t single individuals done to raise or demolish human hopes and fears? Revolutions have spun on the power of a lone voice. We can dig our heels in like goats to make or break history, standing for the Almighty and His Torah despite anything pulling at us within or without. We can also kick and buck against truth with all our might regardless of the consequences.

The two goats looked so similar that they could have been mistaken one for another. In that moment they were almost one and the same. Yet their paths led in opposite directions.  A moment of choice is the moment we split apart from the person we might have been.

All that determined the difference between the two goats was choice, a choice made on high. Nothing distinguished between them except the drawn lots, determined by nothing but God alone. That same God who imbued us with the mysterious ability to determine our own destiny. We choose our own lots. Nothing forces our hands. The choice is free. Free.

But, like the goats, the consequences of each choice lie far apart. One goat, the goat designated for Hashem, was immediately killed in service of the community. Moral, altruistic behaviour  chosen above selfish gratifications is a small death. A small part of our cruel self-absorption dies.

Death and birth are doorways. This small “death” reveals a newly forged aspect of identity, a potential for greatness birthed into actuality. The gates of the inner realms of the Beis HaMikdash open, leading up to the Kodesh HaKodashim, the most sacred and miraculous place of all.

The other goat, the goat to be sent to Azazel, watched death complacently. He felt himself in no danger. Individuals and most societies will not give an inch in their headlong race to suck in the greatest material accomplishment and gratification they can. Morality means nothing. Ethics are a plaything. Religion is a joke. Selfishness is given titles of honour like “the bottom line” and “looking out for number one”. The rotting putridity of envy and the poisonous gases of hate are the ground they walk on and the air they breathe.

That goat was left untouched. “I’m fine,” he might have told you. Of course, he felt bad for his late companion whose death he had just witnessed, but the goat for Azazel hadn’t sacrificed anything of his physical self. Having sacrificed nothing for spiritual purposes, he could not enter the Beis HaMikdash, but that didn’t bother him. His path led outside Jerusalem, where everyone lived and cooperated together. His destiny lay in the desert where there is plenty of space. Lonely, open, wild space, with cliffs falling away beneath you without warning.

His body ended up battered at the bottom of a steep, rocky canyon, cold and alone...

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