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Rabbi Yosef Benarroch


by Rabbi Yosef Benarroch, September 20, 2014





The Torah explains that on Yom Kippur the High Priest would set aside two goats. One would be sacrificed to G-d while the other, after the High priest confessed all the sins of the Jewish nation on its head, would be taken to a cliff and thrown to its death. The Mishnah in Yoma explains the ceremony of the two goats in detail, and this description is an integral part of the Yom Kippur liturgy. The two goats had to be identical one to another: similar in appearance, in height and in cost (see Mishnah Yoma 6:1). What is the significance of twin goats on Yom Kippur? What is the significance in one goat being sacrificed for G-d and the second having all the sins of the Jewish people confessed upon it and thrown off of a cliff? Is atonement for our sins as simple as confessing them onto a goat and then throwing the goat off of a cliff?




Maimonides in the Laws of Repentance explained that the goat thrown off the cliff (Seir Hamishtaleah) atones for the sins of the nation provided they repent for their sins. There is no hocus pocus in Judaism; our sins cannot be atoned without our first undergoing a sincere process of repentance. What then is the meaning of this ritual?




The Abarbanel (Spain, late 1400) provides a meaningful answer. The clue to the puzzle, explains the Abarbanel, is that the goats had to be identical, and relates the two goats to another set of twins in the Torah, Jacob and Esav. Let me explain.





The Torah relates the following, “And Isaac prayed before G-d on behalf of his wife Rebecca for she was without child. G-d heard his prayers and Rebecca his wife conceived. And the children struggled together in her womb and she said why do I live; she subsequently went to inquire of G-d. G-d said to her, two nations are in your womb, and two people will be separated from you, and the elder (Esav) will serve the young (Jacob). And when her days were fulfilled behold there were twins in her womb. The first emerged, he was red and filled with hair thus he was named Esav. After that emerged his brother, and his hand grasped the heel of Esav, and he was given the name Jacob.” (Bereshit 25:21-26).





What are we to make of Rebecca’s question “why do I live”? Rashi suggested that the upheaval in Rebecca's womb represented an eternal struggle. He explains that when Rebecca walked by a house of Torah study Jacob would kick, and when she passed the house of idolatry Esav would kick. The struggle in her womb was symbolic of a spiritual struggle between the vanities of this world and the holiness of the spiritual world. Esav represents that part of every person that has little interest matters that are holy; Esav’s world is all about instant gratification. Jacob on the other hand represents the ability to control one’s desire for instant gratification in order to live a life of meaning and sanctity. What got him kicking was a house of Torah study.  





Abarbanel explained the connection between Jacob and Esav and the two goats of Yom Kippur against this backdrop: “The two goats of Yom Kippur reveal the eternal struggle between the two brothers Jacob and Esav who were born as twins. They too were identical in height and appearance (as the goats of Yom Kippur). In their story one (Jacob) was also separated for a life of sanctity (the goat for Hashem) and the other (Esav) was separated for a life of vanity (the goat sent to the wilderness)… The service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur is a prayer to G-d that our struggle, which is the eternal struggle of Jacob and Esav, end just as is the lot of the two goats. The High Priest confesses the sins of the nation on the goat sent to the wilderness to show that sins belong to Esav and are sent away and that the children of Jacob are pure of sin and G-d is our inheritance.” (Abarbanel Aharei Mot).





The two goats are symbolic of the eternal struggle of Jacob and Esav whose struggle is the struggle between the body and the soul. Each of us has a part of Esav and a part of Jacob within us. Will we give in to Esav and be drawn to the vanities of this world, or will we allow Jacob to prevail and live lives of sanctity and morality?





Yom Kippur is a day when we reveal our spiritual side by putting basic bodily urges to the side. On Yom Kippur we subdue Esav within us in order to allow Jacob to shine.




On Yom Kippur the soul wins. The question we face at the conclusion of Yom Kippur is who will win during the next 364 days. Following Yom Kippur, we begin construction of the Sukkah. By engaging immediately in a Mitzvah we continue to feed the Jacob within us; victory over Esav is possible.





Let us all dedicate more time to the Jacob within during the coming year. Let us spend more time in synagogue, attend more classes, perform more Mitzvot, and dedicate ourselves to more ethical and spiritual lives. The Esav within us may complain a bit. On this Yom Kippur may we all merit being the children of Jacob.




Wishing you all an easy and meaningful Yom Kippur,

Rabbi Yosef Benarroch

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