June 12, 2021

Yoma 62

Today’s daf (Yoma 62a-b) discusses the two se’irim (he goats) whose different fates provided observers with a dramatic illustration of the different fates that may befall each of us. As Rav Soloveitchik explains: ‘the two male goats were identical… but their fates led them in opposite directions, as determined by chance (goral) decisions, entirely beyond their control. The casting of lots decreed which was to go ‘Lashem’, to be sacrificed within the Temple, and which to ‘Azazel’, to be cast out of the camp of Israel ignominiously to be destroyed. The secret of atonement is thus indicated in the ceremonious casting of lots, [and] reflects the basis for the penitents claim to forgiveness; that their moral direction was similarly influenced by forces beyond their control, that their sinning was not entirely a free and voluntary choice… The Avodah is thus a psychodramatic representation of the penitent’s state of mind and their emotional need, [for] only by entering such a plea can humanity be declared “not guilty” (Reflections of the Rav pp. 46-47).
In his recently published article titled ‘Goral – Can we Let God Roll the Dice’ (Tradition 53:2, 2021), David Curwin takes a closer look at Rav Soloveitchik’s thesis and explains that: “Rav Soloveitchik binds the randomness of the goral to our ability to achieve repentance and forgiveness. If we were to accept a fully deterministic view of life, with everything we do controlled by fate, we would have the ultimate alibi, and as a result, no need to repent. But on the other hand, if everything is in our control, how could we even try to repent? We made our bed; we are obligated to sleep in it. Therefore, God, in His kindness, introduced randomness into the world, represented by the goral, to show us that He understands that we do not control everything. We cannot fully predict or determine the outcome of our actions. That delicate balance between internal and external locus of control grants us both responsibility and hope, and leaves room for repentance, and the opportunity for change.”
What this means is that while the goral ceremony dramatically illustrated how different people have the potential of experiencing very different fates, this same ceremony highlighted how many of us do not choose, and therefore cannot be blamed for, all the obstacles that come our way which have contributed to some of the choices we have made. Thus, the goral ceremony is both a source of great angst (in terms of illustrating what may be our fate), and profound relief (in terms of helping us justify the choices we have made); it is a ceremony of ‘both responsibility and hope.’
Undoubtedly, these two words of ‘responsibility’ and ‘hope’ are central words and concepts in Judaism – which is why it makes sense that this major ceremony, occurring on the holiest day of the year, emphasises both – to remind us that to live up to our task, both as individuals and as a nation, we need both responsibility, and hope.
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