If we put together recent discoveries in neuroscience with Midrashic tradition, we may be able to shed new light on the meaning of the central mystery of Parshat Acharei Mot: the two goats, identical in appearance, over which the High Priest cast lots, sacrificing one as a sin offering and sending the other, the scapegoat, into the wilderness to die.
Over the centuries, the Sages sought to decipher the mystery. Two animals, alike in appearance but different in fate, suggests the idea of twins. This and other clues led the Midrash, the Zohar, and classic commentators such as Nahmanides and Abarbanel to the conclusion that in some sense, the two goats symbolized the most famous of all the Torah’s twins: Yaakov and Esav.
There are other clues. The word se’ir, “goat,” is associated in the Torah with Esav, who lived in the land of Seir. The word se’ir is related to sei’ar, “hairy,” which is how he was born. When Rivka urged Yaakov to pretend to be Esav in order to take Yitzchak’s blessing, Yaakov said, “My brother Esav is a hairy [sa’ir] man while I have smooth skin” (Gen. 27:11). According to the Mishnah, a red thread was tied to the scapegoat, and “red” (Edom) was Esav’s other name. So there was a tradition that the scapegoat in some way symbolised Esav. Azazel, the mysterious place or entity for which the goat was intended, was Samael, Esav’s guardian angel.
In particular, the phrase “two kids of the goats,” shnei se’irei izim, mentioned in the High Priest’s rites, reminds us of the very similar expression, “two kids of the goats,” shnei gedi’ei izim, mentioned in Genesis 27, the scene of Yaakov’s deception. Yitzchak had asked Esav to catch him some wild game and prepare him a meal so that he could bless him. Rivka tells Yaakov to “Go out to the flock and bring me two choice kids of the goats, so I can prepare some tasty food for your father, the way he likes it.”
Such verbal parallels are not coincidental. The two goats of the service evoke in multiple ways the figures of Yaakov and Esav, specifically the scene in which Yaakov pretended to be Esav, leading Yitzchak to say, “The voice is the voice of Yaakov, but the hands are the hands of Esav” (Gen. 27:22).
Who then were Esav and Yaakov? What did they represent and how is this relevant to atonement? Midrashic tradition tends to portray Yaakov as perfect and Esav as an evildoer. However, the Torah itself is far more nuanced. Esav is not a figure of evil. His father loved him and sought to bless him. The Sages say that in one respect — honoring his father — he was a supreme role model. Moses commands, “Do not despise an Edomite [i.e., a descendant of Esav], because he is your brother” (Deut. 23:8).
Esav in the Torah is not the epitome of evil. Rather, he is a man of impulse. We see this in the scene in which he sells his birthright to Yaakov. Coming in one day exhausted by the hunt, he sees Yaakov making lentil broth. He says, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!”
Yaakov says, “First sell me your birthright.”
“Look, I am about to die,” Esav says. “What good is the birthright to me?” He swears an oath, selling his birthright to Yaakov, eats, drinks, and leaves (Gen. 25:30–34).
This vignette of Esav’s impetuosity — selling part of his heritage for a bowl of soup — is reinforced by the unique description of the action in the staccato form of five consecutive verbs (literally, “he ate, he drank, he rose, he left, he despised the birthright”). Every time we see Esav, we see an impulsive figure driven by the emotion of the moment.
Yaakov is the opposite. He does not give way to feelings. He thinks long-term. He seizes the opportunity to buy Esav’s birthright, he works for seven years for Rachel (a period that “seemed to him but a few days”), and he fixes terms with Lavan for payment for his labor. Rebuking Yosef for the seeming presumptuousness of his dreams, the Torah tells us that the brothers were jealous of Yosef “but his father kept the matter in mind.” Yaakov never acts impulsively. He thinks long and hard before deciding.
Not only is impetuosity alien to him, he is also critical of it in his children. On his deathbed, he curses his three eldest sons in these words: “Reuven, you are my firstborn … Unstable as water, you will not excel … Shimon and Levi … Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel” (Gen. 49:3–7).
Acting on the basis of anger and impetuosity is, for him, the sign of an unworthy personality.
What does all this have to do with two goats?
Recent years have seen a revolution in our understanding of the human mind. One key text was Antonio Damasio’s book Descartes’ Error. Damasio discovered something unusual about patients who had suffered brain damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Their ability to think remained unchanged, but their ability to feel dropped to almost zero. The result was that they found it impossible to make decisions. They would reason endlessly but fail to choose a course of action.
Subsequent work has shown that Descartes and Kant were wrong. We are not rational animals. David Hume was right; we are primarily emotional beings who make decisions on the basis of feelings and desires of which we may be barely conscious. We justify our choices, but brain scans show that we may make those choices before being aware that we have done so.
We have, in fact, a dual-system or twin-track brain. This is what Daniel Kahneman refers to in the title of his famous book Thinking, Fast and Slow. One track is rapid, instinctive, emotional, and subconscious. The other is slower, conscious, deliberative, and calculating.
The former allows us to react quickly to situations of immediate danger. Without it, we and our ancestors would not have survived. Many of our instinctive reactions are benign. It is natural to have empathy, and to feel other people’s pain and come to their aid. We develop a strong sense of attachment that leads us to defend our family or community.
But not all instincts are benign. Anger, envy, jealousy, fear, hate, and the desire for revenge may once have been functional, but they are often deeply destructive in social situations. That is why the ability to “think slow,” to pause and reflect, matters so much.
All animals have desires. Only human beings are capable of passing judgment on desires — of asking, should I or should I not satisfy this desire?
These discoveries do not tell us something new. Rather, they have vindicated an ancient insight often obscured by Enlightenment rationalism. We cannot live, choose, or love without emotion. But one of the fundamental themes of Genesis is that not all emotion is benign. Instinctive, impulsive behavior can lead to violence. What is needed to be a carrier of G-d’s covenant is the ability to “think slow” and act deliberatively.
Which brings us to Genesis 27, and the moment Yaakov dressed in Esav’s clothes and told his father, “I am Esav, your firstborn.” The two goats of the High Priest’s service and the two goats prepared by Rivka symbolize our duality: “The hands are the hands of Esav but the voice is the voice of Yaakov.”
We each have an Esav and Yaakov within us, the impulsive, emotional brain and the reflective, deliberative one. We can think fast or slow. Our fate, our life-script, will be determined by which we choose. Will our life be lived “to the L-rd” or “to Azazel,” to the random vicissitudes of chance?
This is the moral drama symbolized by the two goats, one dedicated “to the L-rd,” the other “to Azazel” and released into the wilderness. The power of ritual is that it does not speak in abstractions — reason versus emotion, instinctual deferral rather than gratification. It is gripping, visceral, all the more so when it evokes, consciously or otherwise, the memory of the twins, Yaakov and Esav, together at birth yet utterly divergent in their character and fate.
Who am I? That is the question Yom Kippur forces us to ask. To be Yaakov, we have to relinquish the Esav within us, the impulsiveness that can lead us to sell our birthright for a bowl of soup, losing eternity in the pursuit of desire.