It took place only once a year, on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, in the holiest spot on earth — the Beis Hamikdash.
A key part of this singular avodah — which is described at length in this week’s parashah — involved two male goats, or se’irim. They were required to be as identical as possible in appearance, size and value.
The Kohen Gadol would draw lots, and one goat would become sa’ir l’Hashem, slaughtered and offered as a korban chatas, while the other would be sa’ir l’azazel, taken into the wilderness and thrown down from a peak.
Did you ever imagine what was in the mind of the goat as he was taken away towards the wilderness?
As he kicks up his heels, it seems apparent to him that his fellow’s fate has been a most tragic one. While the other goat — representing total dedication to the service of Hashem — has been slaughtered, not only has he remained alive but he is now being led away from the Beis Hamikdash and all it represents.
As Harav Samson Raphael Hirsch, zt”l, described the scene: “It, which ridicules the sacrifice of a life turned towards Hashem, sees over the threshold of the Mishkan of the Torah only slavish repressions in life, and death, and sees freedom and life beckoning far away from it…”
The farther this goat travels, the more it relishes its “freedom,” a life without commitment or boundaries. Then as it is led to the mountain cliff, as it admires the majestic views, the wide expanse of the outside world, it is suddenly pushed down off the cliff to its death in the desert below. Too late it realizes that it was his friend who merited “true life,” the glory that is the reward of a sa’ir l’Hashem.
Rav Hirsch adds: “Each one of us is a sa’ir; each one of us has the power to resist, to be obstinate; the ability to oppose with firmness demands made on our willpower. It is in the way we use this power that the worthiness or worthlessness of our moral existence depends. We can use it in attachment to Hashem, in resisting all internal and external temptation, and considerations which would lure us away from Hashem and His holy Will; in being a sa’ir l’Hashem. Or we can use it in obstinate refusal of all compliant obedience to Hashem and to the demands of His holy laws of morality, can turn the power of resistance which He has granted us against Him, and give ourselves up without a fight to the power of our senses and allurements….”
Rav Hirsch’s eternal words are as applicable today as when he wrote them. There are many in the contemporary world who have a tragically distorted view of Torah life. They perceive it as a life of strict boundaries, of self-restriction, of unnecessary sacrifice. In contrast, they see their own lifestyle as one of liberty and freedom to do whatever they wish, with the “right” to act in any way they choose while ignoring all concepts of morality.
They do not realize that in their pursuit of reckless self-gratification they have, in effect, chosen to be sa’ir l’azazel, while those who choose to live the Torah life are the sa’ir l’Hashem.
It isn’t only in regard to a choice of lifestyles that this teaching applies. On a daily basis, each of us repeatedly reaches a crossroads in our personal conduct, and we have to make a decision between resisting temptation and cleaving to Hashem, or relinquishing power to our
senses and allurements.
This concept has been compared to the strings of a violin. It has been said that when these strings are loose and unattached, they are free to move and bend in every direction. But they cannot sing, and will not produce the joyous sounds of music.
When these very same strings are attached to a violin, they no longer are free to move and bend in whichever direction they may choose. But — they are then free to sing.
So too it is with the Jewish soul. The yoke of Torah and mitzvos are filled with obligations and boundaries, but it is this very yoke that gives our souls the possibility to sing and to live a life of meaning and fulfillment.
For it is our subservience to the Will of the Ribbono shel Olam, the very fact that we put our spiritual obligations before our own material desires, that paves the way to true freedom and real happiness.