The Yom Kippur Goats
“Then he is to take the two goats and present them before the LORD at the entrance to the tent of meeting. He is to cast lots for the two goats — one lot for the LORD and the other for the scapegoat.” — Leviticus 16:7–8
A note to our readers: This week marks the continuation of the ten days between the start of Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur, known as the Days of Awe or Days of Repentance. It is a time of serious introspection in preparation for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which will be observed on Sept. 30. It is considered the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Our devotions throughout this week are tied to this biblically mandated observance.
Yom Kippur is a shadow of what it once was. Today, the holiday is marked with a day of fasting and worship in the synagogue. However, when the Temple stood the people observed an elaborate service, culminating when a red thread representing the sins of Israel would miraculously turn white when they were forgiven. The service was so uplifting that the Jewish sages describe Yom Kippur as one of the two most joyful days on the Jewish calendar.
The service that once took place in the Temple was based on the commandments regarding two goats. Today, we only read about that service; however, it is imperative that we understand the meaning behind this ritual. Once we do, we can still benefit from the message of the goats even in their absence.
The Bible instructed the High Priest to select two goats and then cast lots determining their fate. By way of the lots, God would determine which goat would be consecrated to Him and which would become the scapegoat sent into the desert to die. The sages explain that the commandment required that the two goats be exactly the same – identical in appearance, size, and value. These goats would look like twins – the same on the outside – but their destinies, completely different.
The idea of twins that are opposite in nature is familiar in the Bible. The sages teach that Jacob and Esau were indiscernible from one another at birth. However, inside, they could not be more different. Ultimately, as adults, they took very different paths in life, and Jacob became the father of God’s people while Esau became the father of Amalek – the nation designated by the Bible as God’s archenemy. The twin goats on Yom Kippur are meant to remind us of Esau and Jacob.
The message of the twin goats is that while appearances may fool men, there is no fooling God. He would determine their appropriate fate. “People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). On Yom Kippur we have an incredible opportunity for forgiveness. But in order for that to happen, we must admit our errors and resolve to be better. We can only do that if we are willing to uncover our greatest shortcomings and confront our hidden vices. We can fool others and even ourselves, but there is no deceiving God.
Yom Kippur is a time to come clean. We need to take an honest look inside the places that only we can see. We have to determine where we have gone wrong and make amends. Only then can God cleanse us of our sins.