Acharei Mos

There is an inherent contradiction in the way that G-d relates to the world. We describe Him in the “Thirteen attributes” and elsewhere as a G-d of mercy and forgiveness. After the sin of the Golden Calf G-d explained to Moshe the concept and process of repentance and revoking any harsh decree. Yet at the same time we state that G-d is just and truthful, punishing the wicked and rewarding the righteous. Surely these two attributes are in conflict - if G-d is prepared to forgive and overlook punishment, how is that meting out justice or being fair. On the other hand, if G-d were not merciful, the world would stand no chance of survival. From the very creation of mankind we have gone against the Divine will and only survived instant death because of His forgiveness and acceptance of repentance.

Atonement and forgiveness are central to this week’s Torah reading, dealing primarily with the laws and service of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Miraculously, through confessing our sins and by slaughtering some sacrifices, we are given a blank slate to begin again. Whatever happened to Divine justice - does each sin not need to be punished before atonement can be given?

The answer is that from our perspective, bound by the constraints of time, we cannot conceive of justice which is also forgiveness. G-d, however, is beyond any temporal constraints and perceives all of history as one instant. By introducing the dimension of time we can reconcile the apparent contradiction. Something which appears wrong in the present, can actually turn out to be the catalyst or preparation for the future. If a person resolves to repent and channel their energies back to serving G-d, then all those late nights spent watching television could turn out to be a preparation for all the late nights spent performing Mitzvoth. The mental arithmetic involved in keeping track of the football scores may be the same skills needed to fully grasp a page of Torah. Conversely, instead of punishing a sin severely at the moment it took place, that same justice can be meted out a little at a time, through several minor hardships in order to give that person another chance to make amends.

This is also shown in Judaism’s focus on process, the journey through time, rather than on results, which are momentary. The Omer, the days between Pesach and Shavuot are counted not as an end in and of themselves but showing us the importance of the process of spiritual growth. Each day only has meaning in relation to the days that came before it and those that follow.
All of this is encapsulated in a single word in this week’s Torah reading. The Kohen Gadol (High Priest) casts lots over two identical goats. One is offered as a sacrifice to G-d, its blood sprinkled opposite the Holy of Holies, while the other symbolically bears all of the sins of the Jewish nation and is lead out into the desert where it is sent over the edge of a cliff and dies. The Torah states “Aaron shall press both his hands on the live goat’s head, and he shall confess on it all the Israelite's sins, rebellious acts and inadvertent misdeeds. When he has thus placed them on the goat’s head he shall send it to the desert with an Ish Iti.” (Vayikra 16; 20-21). Ish Iti is translated (based on Rashi’s commentary) as “a specially prepared man”, but means literally “a man of the moment”. The sending of the goat comes to remind us of the concept of forgiveness and the importance of time. It is taken away by a man who is related in the text to a single moment in time. If we were to look only at the moment, we would have no possibility of repentance or pleading for repentance. We would be as the goat, thrown of the cliff to certain death. Only because of the future are we able to turn to G-d and ask Him to give us one more chance.

This is also the metaphor of the desert. The barren desolate wilderness is not only devoid of life, but is also a place where time stands still. The Halacha discusses the case of one who is lost in the desert and loses track of which day of the week it is, thereby not knowing when to observe Shabbat. This is because time is meaningless when confronted with an unending horizon of nothingness. Similarly the fledgling Jewish nation had to spend forty years in the desert after leaving Egypt. The total journey should have only taken three days, but time had to stand still in order to rid them of their Egyptian slave mentality.

By sending the goat into this desert at the hand of a “man of the moment” we show our commitment to a real and meaningful future, and accept the importance of process over time rather than the results of an instant.


There is a movie called “Sliding Doors” which shows how differently things could have turned out if the doors on a tube in London had closed a few seconds later. The movie simultaneously shows what the woman’s life could have been like had she arrived home a few minutes earlier, and what happened when she arrived on time. We find a similar concept in the beginning of the Torah reading, which details the order of service in the Temple on Yom Kippur. Two identical goats are taken; they must be the same age, the same size, the same colour, and have the same value. Yet we are given a glimpse of the two totally different outcomes that can happen. One of the goats is offered as a sacrifice on the altar, and is the only sacrifice to have its blood brought into the holy area of the Heichal, the other goat is sent out into the desert, and is pushed off a cliff, being smashed to pieces before it reaches the bottom. The imagery and contrast is striking.

Similarly, two seemingly identical people can end up with such totally different fates, based on which decisions they make in life. Not only two people, but as in “Sliding Doors”, a single person can have two radically different options in life. Sometimes a single decision can change a person’s life from one extreme to the other. This is the message for all those who were in the Temple courtyard on Yom Kippur to witness the service. They could see the importance of repentance, because the stakes were so high; on the one hand entering into the holiest place and a relationship with G-d, and on the other being cast out of the Temple into a barren desert to die.

Yet the way in which this decision is made by the Kohen Gadol seems as random as in the movie, when everything hinges on when the doors on the tube close. The Kohen Gadol reaches into a box with two lots in it, and snatches out two pieces of wood, one saying “To G-d”, the other “To Azazel”. How are we to exercise our free choice, if the decision between eternal life and death hinge on the luck of the draw?

Had the Kohen Gadolbeen the one to decide which of the goats was for G-d, and which for Azazel, we would never have seen that both of these goats had the potential to become holy or the opposite. We would have said that it had already been predetermined that the one on the right would be sacrificed on the altar. However, now that the decision is made through the casting of lots, it appears to us as though G-d has made the decision. Each of the goats had the same abilities and potential. Since animals do not have free choice, they are unable to choose for themselves what their outcome will be. Because G-d chooses through the lottery, He gives us the analogy that we must exercise our free choice to maximise our potential. By seeing what happens to the two goats, we see that there are extreme consequences for our actions.