I like to explain everything using only the words in the Torah. The following is a modified excerpt from my upcoming book. It is, oddly enough, libertarian in the sense of taking responsibility for one’s own actions. But otherwise, this is pure biblical exegesis, which obviously will not appeal to many. But it might interest a few of you.. so enjoy!
Consider the Yom Kippur offering, the famous “two goats.” One is consigned to Azazel and thrown down a cliff, and the other one meets a holy end as a sacrifice to G-d. Like many other commandments in the Torah, the twin goats of Yom Kippur can be very difficult to understand.
I believe that Jonathan Joy brilliantly explains this by noting that the idea of twin goats comes up much earlier in the Torah – Rebekah tells Jacob to go and get two young goats from the flock, to serve to their father.
The parallelism, once noted, opens us up to an entirely new understanding of Yom Kippur!
To review the story: Rebekah tells Jacob to take the two goats, and to honor his father with them – make delicacies for Isaac’s enjoyment. But the act gets twisted. Jacob and Rebekah plot to do more than merely serve Isaac his favorite food. Instead, they use the skins of those very same goats to both cloak Jacob and deceive his father. One mitzvah turns out to have a forked outcome; the two goats serve both holy and unholy purposes.
The outcome is near disaster. Jacob ends up fleeing for his life, and the fate of the Jewish people hangs in the balance until he returns to Israel many years later. Rebekah, as some commentators have noted, suffers the consequence of not seeing her beloved son for the rest of her life. Jacob, for the pain he causes his mother, loses his own son, Joseph, for the same number of years. And while he ends up making it up to Esau, Jacob is never called to task for the act of deception against his blind father, and for the sin he committed in G-d’s eyes by taking an opportunity to serve his father, and then perverting it.
The Yom Kippur goats are our way of nationally accepting this founding sin of Judaism, through an act of tikkun, correction. Instead of taking two goats and using them for good and evil, we take two goats, and acknowledge the error of Jacob in using them for evil as well as good. And instead of cloaking ourselves in their skins, and using the cover of those same goats to deceive our Father (as Jacob did), we use the goats to cover ourselves, to achieve a national kaporoh. In so doing, we both acknowledge wrongdoing, and seek to be protected from the consequences that still hang over the Jewish people.
Note the key difference between the pairs of goats: In our nation’s infancy, Jacob killed two young goats, but the goats we sacrifice on Yom Kippur are no longer kids; they are all grown up.
When Yaakov sinned, he did so because his mother told him to. He was unsure of himself enough to do what he was pushed into doing. His sin was, in a sense, less mature, less developed than it would have been had he hatched the plan himself. But ultimately, he was responsible for his actions.
So, every Yom Kippur, we have the opportunity to relive a founding national experience – but instead of having it cripple us, we use the sacrifice as a way to both acknowledge our sins and to secure G-d’s blessings for another year – despite our failings. We gain mercy, because we “own up” to our wrongdoing
The sin of Aaron the High Priest was quite similar; the Golden Calf, like the slaughtered goats, also started with good intentions – the nation wanted an intermediary to replace Moses as the go-between to G-d. When the nation petitioned Aaron, events spun out of control, and he ended up making the Golden Calf. Like Jacob, Aaron was unable to stand up against the pressure, and so he folded. The Golden Calf was also a disaster, and one for which Aaron, like Jacob, was also never punished.
Just as the twin young goats of Jacob’s youth translate into fully grown goats for the nation, so too Aaron’s sin with the calf translates into his own kaporoh requiring a fully-grown bull. We are grown up now; we take full responsibility.
Jacob and Aaron’s acts both changed history forever. They both almost led to the destruction of the Jewish people, and as such, simple repentance, teshuvah, is not possible. We do teshuvah to correct mistakes we have made, but the sins that change the course of history cannot be simply forgiven and forgotten.
It is fitting that on Yom Kippur, the day we ask G-d to come close to us despite the sins we have committed, the Children of Jacob, as well as the Children of Aaron, gain G-d’s grace by acknowledging even those unforgivable moments of weakness, and ask Him to refrain from punishing us for the times in which we yielded to the pressure to do wrong. We take the bull and goats, tokens of our sins, and use them solely for good. Instead of using them to try to fool G-d, we limit ourselves to trying to do what Jacob and Rebekah first set out to do: please Him.
The goal of Yom Kippur is thus NOT atonement. It is to establish a buffer zone between ourselves and divine justice. The “kaporoh” (covering) of tar that insulated the ark from the water is analogous to the kaporoh we ask for on Yom Kippur. We cannot undo or counter G-d’s will, but we can ride out the storm if we gain a protective layer. And both the ark and the kaporoh of Yom Kippur require positive action on our part – we can create it in words and deeds. And that covering, kaporoh, allows us to move forward with our lives.