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Torah Tuesdays with Hennie Black- Parshat Acharei Mot




The primary focus of this week’s parsha of Acharei Mot is the service of the Kohen Gadol, the high priest in the temple on Yom Kippur. Part of this service included the ceremony of the two goats, which were chosen to be as similar as possible, both in size and appearance.

The priest would draw a lot to determine which of the two goats would be “for G-d” as an atonement for the sins of the Jewish people, enacted through sacrifice and the sprinkling of blood on the altar, and which would be “sent to Azazel,” that is, thrown off a cliff outside Jerusalem following the kohen’s confession of the sins of the Jewish people.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch z”l teaches that the two goats represent the choices that we are confronted with each and every day.  Every person is created with the potential to do good or bad. We all have free choice to choose right from wrong and to decide what direction we wish to take.

It is often the case that the more difficult choice requires sacrifice. While the easier choice might come with more instant gratification, the long term effects might not be as positive.

The word “Azazel,” says Rabbi Hirsch, can be broken down into two Hebrew words—“az” and “azel,” which together mean “strength departs.” The goat selected for Azazel led him to “az” and “azel”—to his strength ultimately departing.

What appears to be the easier, better path is actually the one that may lead to disastrous outcomes. It is often the case that the harder path in life is where we should direct our energy and focus, as it is that course that frequently guarantees us a better future.

Rabbi Shalom Rosner elaborates on this theme: imagine what’s going through the minds of the goats in this scenario. There are two goats, exactly alike, standing together. One goat is taken into the temple and slaughtered and its blood is sprinkled on the altar.

The other goat witnesses the fate of the other goat, thinking that he has been spared, but then he is led outside the temple. The ruse continues. The goat sees the beautiful skies and the desert land before him. He thinks he’s lucky and the chosen goat. But in the end, it’s the goat that was slaughtered to atone for the Jewish people’s sins that had the better outcome. The goat designated for “Azazel” is thrown off the cliff into the wilderness only to have his flesh torn to pieces as he plunges to his death. The lesson? It appears that there are a lot of misperceptions and misconceptions about what is really the best course of action in life. 

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch emphasizes exactly this point, explaining that sometimes we have misconceptions about who’s better off in life and who has it worse. We have no idea the full story of what’s really going on in people’s lives. Just because one looks like he is leading a perfect life does not necessarily mean that it is so.

It is so apropro in today’s climate where social media plays such a big role in our lives. We see people seemingly leading “perfect” lives. But we are only seeing what that person wants us to see. We are seeing their “highlight reel,” a glimpse, a snapshot. We are missing the big picture.

Let us keep in mind that, like the goats’ misperceptions during the temple service on Yom Kippur, the world is filled with smokes and mirrors. As we navigate the choices that we must make in life, let us keep in mind what is real. Let us take off the rose-coloured glasses and make the right choices that will lead to a life truly worthy of admiration.

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