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Ya'akov, Esav, and the Yom Kippur Ritual

Rav Elyakim Krumbein
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Translated by David Fuchs




In his commentary to parashat Acharei-Mot, Abarbanel quotes a midrash (Bereishit Rabba 65:15) which sees the se'ir la-azazel (scapegoat) as representing Esav, Ya'akov's brother:

"'And the goat will carry upon him' (Vayikra 16:22) - meaning Esav; 'all their sins' - the sins of the simple man ('avonotam' = avonot tam), as it is said: 'And Ya'akov was a simple man' (Bereishit 25:27)."

Abarbanel develops the parable further, claiming that the second goat, which is sacrificed to the Lord, symbolizes Ya'akov. Ya'akov and his descendants inherit the World-to-Come, symbolized by the sprinkling of this goat's blood in the Holy of Holies. However, the scapegoat "is cast away to a barren land - just as Esav in his youth was a hunter, and a man of the field, but was sent away from the Land of the Lord."

The two goats of Yom Kippur are mentioned in another midrash (Bereishit Rabba 65:14), expounding Yitzchak's request, "Fetch me from there two good kids of the goats" (Bereishit 27:9):

"'Good' - good for you, and good for your descendants, because by them they are cleansed on Yom Kippur, one to the Lord and one to Azazel."

The first midrash sees the two goats as representing Ya'akov and Esav; the second one - as representing the two kids Ya'akov brought to his father.

Those two midrashim do not exhaust the parallels between Ya'akov's conflict with his brother and Avodat Yom Ha-kippurim (the Yom Kippur ritual in the Temple). Many motifs in seder ha-avoda (the ritual order) echo the struggle between the brothers.

For example, Ya'akov's entrance to his father's room, waiting for a blessing, reminds us of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) entering the Holy of Holies. Moreover, Ya'akov wears special clothes for the occasion, just as does the Kohen Gadol, and Yitzchak notes "the smell of my son," which may parallel the incense. Small wonder, therefore, that the Midrash completes the picture by comparing Ya'akov's gift to his father to the two goats of Yom Kippur, which make it possible for the Kohen to enter the Kodesh.

The Midrash quoted by Abarbanel, which compares the scapegoat to Esav himself, is also well founded in the story of the blessings. Ya'akov objects to his mother's proposal: "But Esav my brother is a hairy man (sa'ir = hairy; se'ir = goat)" (Bereishit 27:11). Rivka solves the problem by dressing her son in goats' skins, thus making him hairy as well. (Abarbanel explains the solution differently, noting that Ya'akov is the tza'ir [younger] brother; but that seems rather difficult, and quite unnecessary.) So both Ya'akov and Esav are like two goats, only one of which will enter the Kodesh - their father's room - and receive a blessing. The twin brothers become so similar physically, that even their own (admittedly blind) father cannot recognize the one from the other - just as the Halakha requires the two goats to be equal in height and appearance (Yoma 62a). And like the two goats, the brothers' fates hang on a thread: only one will receive the blessing (sacrificed to the Lord), and the other one will be cast out (to the Azazel).

Ya'akov meets Esav again in Bereishit 32-33, and even there one might find parallels to Avodat Yom Ha-kippurim. Ya'akov needs to pacify his brother with gifts, comprised of herds of animals. The scapegoat sent to the wilderness is often viewed as a "gift" to the "se'irim," so it should not surprise us to find that Ya'akov's first gift to Esav is a flock of goats. Here, Esav is identified with the forces of evil.

Later, however, he seems again to parallel the scapegoat itself. The man who struggles with Ya'akov all night - identified by Chazal (Bereishit Rabba 77:3) with Esav's guardian angel - begs, "Send me away," just as the scapegoat is "sent away." Subsequently, Esav himself physically heads back to the wilderness, departing for Mount Se'ir "away from his brother Ya'akov" (Bereishit 36:6).




In Sefer Vayikra, the parasha of avodat Yom Ha-kippurim is followed by the parasha of shechutei chutz (literally, "those slaughtered outside" - animals which have been slaughtered, but whose blood has not brought as an offering to the Temple). Apparently, the Torah juxtaposes them in order to develop further the contrast between the Ohel Mo'ed (Tent of Meeting) and the wilderness, between God and Azazel. A deep chasm has opened between the two identical goats. The labels "for God" and "for Azazel" indicate not only their destinations, but their essences as well.

In the short mention in Vayikra 16:22, we gain the impression that the wilderness is an evil place, the proper place for our iniquities. And here, the Torah contrasts sacrifice in the Ohel Mo'ed, which serves as a peace offering to God, and slaughter "in the open field" (Vayikra 17:5). An ordinary act of animal slaughter is vehemently denounced: "Blood shall be imputed to that man; he has shed blood" (Vayikra 17:4). In no other place does the Torah call animal slaughter "bloodshed;" here it does so twice. Idol worship, too, is more than hinted at: "And they shall no more offer their sacrifices to the 'se'irim' (demons)" (Vayikra 17:7). A sacred rite, which serves to unite God and man when performed "inside," is now the cause of "karet," the cutting off from God of one who slaughters "outside" (Vayikra 17:9). There is no third option; if Ohel Mo'ed is abandoned, the wilderness comes to the camp, and the demons crowd in.

In Bereishit, the contrast between Ohel Mo'ed and "the open field" is exemplified by Ya'akov, the "dweller of tents," and Esav, the "man of the field" (Bereishit 25:27). There is no mistake as to the other allusions to Esav in our parasha - the many mentions of blood remind us that Esav was called Edom (red), and Esav the hunter is the forerunner of "whichever man... hunts venison of any beast or bird" (Vayikra 17:13). The connection linking shechutei chutz to bloodshed and idolatry illuminates Chazal's imputing those two crimes to Esav (Bava Batra 16b). (Chazal also impute incest to Esav, perhaps because the avodat Yom Ha-kippurim and shechutei chutz are followed by the parasha of arayot, incestuous relationships.)




Of course, we must attempt to understand the messages the Torah implied in these parallels. Let us raise a few points for thought.

Perhaps the most prominent theme of the Torah is the sanctifying of the nation, and the devolving of God's Presence upon them. This is expressed by sacrifice and worship, and reaches its apex when the Kohen Gadol enters Holy of Holies at the climax of Yom Kippur. Perhaps it is no coincidence that this climax is preceded, and even completed, by a reference to the wild, demonic powers "outside." The other sacrifices whose blood is brought into the Kodesh (Mishna Zevachim ch. 5) are totally burnt outside the camp, and defile all those who participate in them (Vayikra 4). The higher holiness ascends, the more powerful the opposite forces become - as if "provoked" by it, and induced to raise the more obstacles to it. Or perhaps that is exactly the essence of human holiness, combating and overcoming those very animalistic, demonic forces?

Once confronted with these forces, two different ways of overcoming them are feasible, and the Torah suggests both. In the Avoda, the goat is sent to the wilderness, and all evil forces are cast away. We turn our back on these evil forces and reject them, thus perpetuating the struggle. "The Lord will have a war with Amalek to all generations" (Shemot 17:16; note that Amalek is the grandson of Esav). On the other hand, in the parasha of shechutei chutz, the Torah offers the evil forces in man a chance of redemption - the shedding of animal blood "outside" is transformed into sacrifice inside the Ohel Mo'ed, becoming a Peace Offering betweeGod and man. Chazal teach us that the evil impulse must always be "kept away by the left hand, but drawn near by the right" (Sota 47a).

When Yitzchak asked Esav to bring him venison, offering him a blessing for it, he was following the "shechutei chutz" approach. But Ya'akov turned the tables. Instead of venison, he brought his father two kids from the flock - an easily available and tender meat, needing no laborious chase and no long preparation. The blessing of Ya'akov comes naturally to one whose smell is "like the smell of the field which the Lord has blessed" (Bereishit 27:27). But it consequently leads to further polarization, and to the final rejection of Esav; when he comes in immediately afterwards, Chazal describe Yitzchak as fearfully recognizing "Hell opening under his feet" (Rashi on Bereishit 27:33, following Bereishit Rabba 66:2). Esav becomes the scapegoat, sent to the wilderness.

Ya'akov must make amends - and he does so when he recognizes the need to pacify Esav and offer him gifts. In his struggle with the angel, Ya'akov finds "he cannot overcome him" (Bereishit 32:26). Complete victory will not be his if he pursues the violent struggle alone - and he sets his adversary free. Spiritually, he is no longer entrenched in total separation from his brother and his way; he knows his mission extends there as well, and starts his long, slow way "to my lord to Se'ir" (Bereishit 33:14). He makes no immediate plans, but knows he must get there before the final Redemption (Rashi on Bereishit 33:14).

In our calendar, both approaches are crystallized in the holidays of Tishrei. Yom Kippur is the day of fatal combat, culminating in the casting away of all "outside" forces. Sukkot is a time of appeasement, when we sacrifice seventy bulls in the Temple for the peace of all nations (Sukka 55b).


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