Aaron [the High Priest] shall place lots upon the two goats: one lot “for God” and one lot “for Azazel.” Aaron shall bring close the goat designated by lot for God and make it a sin-offering. And the goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be stood alive before God, to provide atonement though it, to send it to Azazel into the wilderness.
One of the most puzzling and disturbing rituals in Jewish practice is the goat “for Azazel.” During the afternoon of Yom Kippur, two goats are brought before the Kohein Gadol, the High Priest. By lot, one is chosen to be placed upon the altar as a sin-offering, while the other is taken out into the desert and thrown alive over the edge of a sheer cliff.
What purpose could such a practice possibly serve?
In truth, the symbolism of this ritual is astonishingly simple and frighteningly relevant. The two goats, identical in every way, symbolize the two possible futures that stretch out before every single human being. Like these goats – which appear indistinguishable from one another – many of the paths open to us in our youth seem equally attractive and filled with opportunity. Every child demonstrates both qualities of virtue and qualities of selfishness. Whether our higher or lower nature will win out in the end can never be reliably predicted.
Only over the course of a lifetime will it become evident whether the individual has chosen the path of righteousness, dedicating his life “to God,” like the goat offered up on the altar, or abandoned virtue for the path of wickedness, wandering through life into the wasteland of moral confusion and making himself into an offering “to Azazel,” a name commonly associated with the Satan but often left undefined.
Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch explains that the name Azazel can be understood as a composite of two Hebrew words: az azal – “wasted strength.” Rather than devoting his life to the ways of virtue defined by God’s law, a person may use his human potential for pleasure seeking, for ego-gratification, for ultimately self-serving ends. By doing so, he squanders the resources of physical health, intelligence, and imagination in pursuit of temporal rewards that leave him, for all his efforts, with nothing of real value. He will have wasted his life, as surely as the life of the goat flung over the precipice in the wilderness comes to a wasted end. Like that goat, his life will have served no purpose except as a warning to others.
On this Day of Atonement, we remind ourselves of the urgency of daily reflection upon our past and our future, of the need to contemplate the awesome indictments of the Day of Judgment that we have only just survived, and of the priceless opportunity we have to influence the verdict of the Celestial Court as it determines our fate for the coming year.
Will we choose to offer ourselves on the altar of divine service by committing ourselves to take greater care in our speech, in our actions, and in our thoughts? Will we show more consideration for our fellow men and conduct ourselves with modesty and humility? Or will we continue on as we have, like the goat wandering blindly into the wilderness of oblivion, persisting in the habits of spiritual and moral insensitivity that may have already led us to the brink of eternal desolation?
It should be an easy choice. But the most important choices that confront us are rarely easy; instead, we grope through the darkness of confusion, blundering through the days and years of our lives.
Except for one day a year, when our eyes are opened wide.
The sages tell us that one who answers amen has greater merit than one who recites the blessing itself: no praise of the Almighty is complete until it is reaffirmed by another. However, we learn elsewhere that in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the congregation did not answer with the tradition amen but with the phrase “baruch sheim kovod malchuso l’olam vo’ed– Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever.”
Rabbi Samuel Eliezer Edels (Maharsha) explains that amen is an expression of emunah, the faithfulness that compels us to remain true to God’s Law and to our spiritual mission even when the darkness of exile envelops us, even when human logic would abandon all hope that there is any rhyme or reason, that there is either Judge or justice. Amen is the affirmation of our faithful belief in the existence and the divine plan of our Creator even when our senses can make little sense of our existence. When we declare amen – it is so! – not as an obligatory act but as a willing response, we testify to others and to ourselves that the hidden face of God hides from us only so that we can raise ourselves to new spiritual heights by seeking out the divine presence.
In the courtyard of the Temple, however, the radiance of the Shechina (the Divine presence) illuminated the eyes of all who stood in the holy courtyard facing the inner sanctum. Those who made the pilgrimage and passed through those gates were rewarded with a vision of such profound spiritual clarity that every shred of doubt evaporated and absolute certainty overtook them. There was no room left for emunah, and no need to cry out amen.
Instead, the ministrants would proclaim blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever, a formula reserved for the malachim — the celestial emissaries that reside in the heavenly spheres — but which we are allowed to intone only in a whisper.
And why are we not permitted to say these words out loud? Since we do not know and cannot know the name – the essence – of God’s glorious kingdom, at least not until we have lived out our lives in this world and made our transition into the next. We have no right to praise that of which we have no knowledge, and so we dare only speak of it softly in anticipation of the day when it becomes our inheritance.
But in the Temple, in the presence of the Shechina enwrapped in the light of holiness, one gained sufficient clarity so that he could cry out with the malachim, not as an expression of faith but as declaration of absolute knowledge.
And there is one other occasion when we are permitted to proclaim this formula aloud: on Yom Kippur.
On Yom Kippur, we shed the trappings of our material existence and enter the realm of the malachim. Indeed, if we have prepared ourselves properly over the Ten Days of Repentance, then we do not merely give up eating and drinking; rather, we lose all interest in physical indulgences, attaining a vision of such spiritual clarity that we might as well be in the Temple itself, or in the celestial spheres alongside God’s divine emissaries.
And when the day is over and we return to the mundane existence of the physical world, we should find ourselves transformed, no longer malachim but much more than flesh and blood. With renewed spiritual energy and awareness, we are equipped to resolve the contradictions of the higher and lower worlds, and the paradox of the Almighty’s hidden and revealed self.
And this we can accomplish a hundred times a day, with every blessing we pronounce and every amen we answer.
Maharsha goes on to explain that the Tetragrammaton — the four letter name of God as it is spelled out in Hebrew – yud-kay-vav-kay – represents the Almighty in His ultimate form, all powerful and eternal, Master of the glorious kingdom whose name is known only to the malachim. On the other hand, the spoken name of God, the name in our prayers and our blessings – Ado-noy – represents the Creator as He reveals Himself to us as Master of our world.
With every blessing that we recite, we have an opportunity to act upon the revelation we experienced on Yom Kippur, uniting the revealed and the concealed names of God, proclaiming the unity of the Master of the Universe. And even more so when we respond amen.
According to Jewish numerology, or gematria, every letter in the Hebrew alphabet has a numerical equivalent. The numerical values of God’s written name – yud-kay-vav-kay – is 26. The gematria of God’s name as we pronounce it – Ado-noy – is 65. And when we respond to another’s blessing, affirming our faithful conviction that the same God we perceive imperfectly through our limited human eyes is one with the ineffable God who created the heavens and the earth, we ourselves transcend both the simple obligations of Torah observance and the finite nature of our earthly existence with one simple word: amen – with the gematria of 91, the sum of 26 and 65, representing the absolute unity of the Almighty.
And if we can achieve this awareness, despite all the darkness and confusion of our world, the malachim can do nothing but look on and covet the opportunity all of us have to serve our Creator in the way that is uniquely our own.
 Commentary on Chumash, loc. cit.
 Berachos 53b; Rashba, Sha’alos and Teshuvos 5:53
 Sotah 40b