Friday, April 27, 2007

Acharei Mos: The Yom Kippur Goats

When one sins, he brings a goat as a chatas, or sin offering. Rabbi Hirsch explains the symbolism of this offering. The goat represents the individual sinner's obstinacy, his egotistical desire to do his own bidding, and obey no one external. A naturally stubborn animal, the goat is full of its own vigor and will. It symbolizes the fact that when one sins, he has cast off the yoke of Heaven for that time, and acted without subjugating himself to God's rule. This symbolic goat is brought to the Temple, where submits itself to slaughter. This represents man's ideal, which is submission to God's will. This is an ideal which the sinner has lost, and he brings the offering as a lofty reminder of what his relationship with God must rest on.

The goat is then brought to the fires of the altar, and its blood sprinkled on the sides. When this happens, the sinner learns the lesson that by submitting to the yoke of God, we take our temporal, transitive existence in this world, and convert it into immortality. By keeping our actions in tune with the desires of Hashem, we sublimate our lives, and they become part of the eternal. The altar represents the processing of God's will on earth. Our actions, indeed our very bodies, are to be "לחם אשה ריח ניחוח לה." They are to serve as fuel for the flame of God.

On Yom Kippur, however, a double goat offering is brought. The two goats are to be as identical as possible; they should be bought together, and of the same height and appearance. They represent not only one man, but mankind in general. A lottery decides which one will be for Hashem, and which will go לעזעזל. In other words, no outward properties decide if a particular human will do good or evil. It is truly up to each individual. This is the foundation of free will, that we each choose to do good or evil. Our actions are not predestined or determined by genetics.

The goat that is chosen to be for God immediately submits to slaughter and becomes fuel for God's fire. Meanwhile, the one destined for azazel stands in its own vigor and power. It continues to live. However, it comes to the door of the Temple, but no further. It represents people who choose to turn their backs on God's teachings. He heads out to the desert. One who chooses to live outside the bounds of free-willed subservience to God really has no place in the ideal human society. This person has decided to make his life a hedonistic celebration of his own ego. While he may have a pleasant life (symbolized by his staying alive longer than the goat that was sacrificed), he ultimately is thrown off a cliff in a barren land. His existence and his life's meaning ends with his death. He has chosen not to be fuel for God's glory on earth, and so, has missed his chance at immortality.

The everyday sin offering is enough for us generally. It is enough to teach us how to act with positive reinforcement. However, once a year, the nation gets a symbolic lesson demonstrating the spiritual excision of one who chooses not to live the life delineated by God, with negative reinforcement.

Perhaps this can be a lesson to educators. Negative reinforcement has its place, but positive reinforcement must be the way that discipline is mostly accomplished. Incentives and positive messages awaken the nobility in a child's soul, instead of engendering fear and malice.