Tonight begins the fast of Yom Kippur. Apropos of which, I thought I’d pass on an insight of a rabbi friend of mine.

The most striking ritual of atonement from ancient Israelite practice was the scapegoat. You remember: the high priest takes two goats, and casts lots, which shall be for the Lord and which for Azazel. The “winning” goat gets slaughtered as a sin offering, while the “losing” goat gets this [Leviticus 16:18-22]:

יח  וְיָצָא, אֶל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ אֲשֶׁר לִפְנֵי-יְה-וְכִפֶּר עָלָיו; וְלָקַח מִדַּם הַפָּר, וּמִדַּם הַשָּׂעִיר, וְנָתַן עַל-קַרְנוֹת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, סָבִיב. 18 And he shall go out unto the altar that is before the LORD, and make atonement for it; and shall take of the blood of the bullock, and of the blood of the goat, and put it upon the horns of the altar round about.
יט  וְהִזָּה עָלָיו מִן-הַדָּם בְּאֶצְבָּעוֹ, שֶׁבַע פְּעָמִים; וְטִהֲרוֹ וְקִדְּשׁוֹ, מִטֻּמְאֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. 19 And he shall sprinkle of the blood upon it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it, and hallow it from the uncleannesses of the children of Israel.
כ  וְכִלָּה מִכַּפֵּר אֶת-הַקֹּדֶשׁ, וְאֶת-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְאֶת-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ; וְהִקְרִיב, אֶת-הַשָּׂעִיר הֶחָי. 20 And when he hath made an end of atoning for the holy place, and the tent of meeting, and the altar, he shall present the live goat.
כא  וְסָמַךְ אַהֲרֹן אֶת-שְׁתֵּי יָדָו, עַל רֹאשׁ הַשָּׂעִיר הַחַי, וְהִתְוַדָּה עָלָיו אֶת-כָּל-עֲו‍ֹנֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאֶת-כָּל-פִּשְׁעֵיהֶם לְכָל-חַטֹּאתָם; וְנָתַן אֹתָם עַל-רֹאשׁ הַשָּׂעִיר, וְשִׁלַּח בְּיַד-אִישׁ עִתִּי הַמִּדְבָּרָה. 21 And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, even all their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of an appointed man into the wilderness.
כב  וְנָשָׂא הַשָּׂעִיר עָלָיו אֶת-כָּל-עֲו‍ֹנֹתָם, אֶל-אֶרֶץ גְּזֵרָה; וְשִׁלַּח אֶת-הַשָּׂעִיר, בַּמִּדְבָּר. 22 And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land which is cut off; and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.

This looks pretty straightforward: the priest is taking the sins of the people, and putting them on the goat. But why? Normally, if you have committed a transgression, the procedure is to offer a sin offering – and, indeed, before this procedure, that’s exactly what the priest does: he makes offerings on his own behalf and on behalf of the people. Why, then, is a goat sent to Azazel at this point?

If you look closely at the text, what you’ll see is that the scapegoat ritual isn’t about atoning for the people, and taking away their sin from them, but about atoning for the altar. That’s what it says: the priest “shall go out unto the altar that is before the LORD, and make atonement for it” – for it, not for himself or for the people. “And he shall sprinkle of the blood upon it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it, and hallow it from the uncleannesses of the children of Israel” – again, the “it” is the altar; that’s what is being cleansed and hallowed from Israel’s sins. “And when he hath made an end of atoning for the holy place, and the tent of meeting, and the altar, he shall present the live goat” – that’s where the goat comes in, not after the priest has finished atoning for the people, but after he has finished atoning for the altar.

What on earth does that mean?

It is helpful, in this regard, to think of sin as something that leaves a physical residue – to think of this “cleansing” in as literal terms as possible. When someone transgresses, and performs a sin offering to atone, the offering is not a penance, something the person gives up to make up for the sin, nor is it a bribe to the judge, something God finds pleasing and that will encourage His mercy. Rather, the blood of the offering is a kind of spiritual cleanser, which takes the residue of sin off the sinner.

So where does it go?

It goes, with the blood, onto the altar.

Which is why, once a year, the priest needs to make atonement for the altar, to cleanse it of the sins of the people that have accumulated over the year. It’s like cleaning the filter. The scapegoat ritual transfers these accumulated sins to the goat, so that the altar can continue to do its job of receiving the residue of sin for another year.

We moderns don’t tend to think of sin as leaving a physical residue. But we might think of it in similar terms metaphorically – talking about guilt as a psychic residue, or what-have-you. And we don’t think we can cleanse ourselves by pouring blood on an altar. But we do recognize that the need to make restitution and the need for spiritual “cleansing” are not identical processes. The one is social; the other is psychological. And we do make use of intermediaries of various sorts for that process of cleansing, whether clergy or therapists or friends and family or even objects that we imbue with the kind of spiritual power once attributed to the altar.

And those intermediaries, who have taken on the residues of our sins, also need a cleansing.

So that’s what I’m going into this Yom Kippur thinking about. Who have I been using as an altar for the past year, making them the receptacles of my guilt and frustration and anger and all the rest of it, and what can I do to help them get clean of all that . .  so I can go on using them for another year.

To those who observe, have a meaningful and easy fast. To those who don’t, have some goat.