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.